It’s too early to panic, but it is never too early to be concerned.

That is where parents, students, teachers, school administrators and the community at large sit with about a week to go before the first day of classes in the Ellensburg School District and the teachers and district still in contract negotiations.

On the positive side, the teachers and district have brought in a mediator, an indicator both sides are willing to do what is necessary to reach a compromise. Also, Ellensburg does not have a history of teacher strikes — typically contracts are resolved prior to that point.

On the less-than-rosy side, the underlying factors are different in 2019, creating uncertainty over whether a compromise can be reached.

One of the impacts of the state’s Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling requiring the state to fully fund K-12 education was to change the way teachers are paid. Districts can no longer add to teacher salaries with levy funds. The new formula under McCleary creates its own type of pay inequity.

In 2019 other districts in Central Washington are able to pay teachers more than the Ellensburg School District. A teacher has the option of taking a job for more money in a town with a lower cost of living. There are certainly lifestyle factors that may keep a teacher in Ellensburg, as compared to towns in the region that lack amenities such as a university, but there are also instances where the draw of a significant net increase in pay will prove attractive.

Whether intentional or not, the effort to comply with McCleary, created the possibility for this discrepancy.

Regardless of how it happened, this is the situation the Ellensburg School District faces. Other districts are able to pay teachers more. Ellensburg officials counter that the state funding did not benefit Ellensburg in that manner.

Both sides have valid points so the question becomes whether there is some point in the middle acceptable to all involved.

One thing we know for sure is that a teacher strike is best avoided. Even if one side “wins” at the end, there is a cost paid — whether that is disruption of the education schedule or loss of community support for the school system.

The notion of a strike is scary but that means there is incentive to get a deal done.

The challenge is to do a deal within the framework of the Ellensburg School District budget. The complicating factor is the district expects its budget to tighten in the next two or three years if the state does not make adjustments to the McCleary funding.

The risk is funding pay with reserves and then not having the money to sustain that level of pay in coming years.

However, if comparable districts in the region are paying teachers more, Ellensburg will face increasing difficulty both retaining and recruiting teachers.

There is no “bad guy” in this scenario, but there is a challenge to figuring out how to make it work.

Long-term, we can look at how we’re educating kids — the ever evolving blend of classroom and online, along with offsite programs such as Running Start. It may be schools of the not-so-distant future will have different staff mix needs.

But in the short-term, as parents and community members what we can do is support parties in reaching a compromise. The agreement on a mediator is an excellent indication that the goal of all involved is to reach a solution.

For now, go ahead and buy those school supplies, but parents with seasonally adjusted child care may want a extended-summer emergency plan.


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