Classes delayed for 30,000 students as more teachers strike in southwest Washington

By: - August 30, 2023 8:44 pm

Evergreen Public Schools teachers went on strike on Wednesday, August 30 and marched in Vancouver. (Evergreen Education Association)

Special education teacher Angie Latange was one of 1,500 educators at Evergreen Public Schools in Vancouver on strike Wednesday. It was not her first time: Evergreen educators also picketed in 2018. But this strike, Latange said, feels different.

“The energy is higher,” Latange said. “Last time, it was more … salary-based. This time, it’s absolutely not about salary. It’s about what our students deserve and what they’re not getting.”

Evergreen Public Schools canceled classes, which were scheduled to start Wednesday.

The district said in a statement to the Standard that it is “disappointed the students’ return to school is being delayed” and will “try to reach an agreement that is fair to our teachers and is affordable and sustainable.”

The strike in Vancouver will delay the start of the school year for around 23,000 students. It comes as schools around the state emerge from pandemic-related disruptions. Latange said the COVID quarantine years exacerbated challenges teachers were already facing to meet students’ needs.

“It’s bad,” Latange said. “Students are really suffering.”

More than 450 teachers at Camas School District, also located in southwest Washington, have been on strike since Monday, delaying the start of the school year for about 7,000 students.

Another district in the area, Battle Ground, was facing a possible strike but started classes as planned Wednesday after teachers voted against a work stoppage Tuesday afternoon. A majority of union members who voted supported the strike, but the union failed to reach the 90% threshold required.

Teachers and administrators in all three districts are negotiating contracts for the new school year.

Sticking points around special education

While wages are on the negotiating table, Evergreen teachers on the picket line say the strike is primarily over securing more staff, planning time and training resources – particularly for special education.

Amy Vesneske, an Evergreen Public Schools special education teacher, said staffing shortages in special education classrooms are creating safety concerns for both teachers and students.

“We know what [student] needs are, we’ve identified the tools and the things to help them. But there’s literally no one to sit with them and help them access those coping strategies. And that leads to huge escalations: property destruction, assaulting staff, assaulting other students,” Vesneske said. “And the kids don’t want to be like that. They don’t have the supports that they need.”

Evergreen teachers also say additional special education funding from the Legislature hasn’t yet trickled down to their classrooms — and that they need more immediate support and accountability measures from state lawmakers to ensure districts are putting those funds to use.

“It always seems like they say, ‘oh, you have money from this government, that government.’ And we don’t always see it,” said Jennifer Cunningham, a special education teacher and former paraeducator at Evergreen. “I had a teacher just this past year who had to fight to get an interpreter for a deaf student. Why would you even have to fight that?”

Special education support is an issue in Camas and Battle Ground negotiations, as well.

Staffing concerns

Evergreen Public Schools, like many other districts, is dealing with a number of paraeducator vacancies. The district also eliminated all middle and high school teacher-librarian positions in early 2023, which teachers say is forcing them to pick up extra responsibilities.

“The way things are going in our society in general, kids need more from us. We’re not just teaching them a subject,” Cunningham said.

Tara Celustka is a former middle school librarian who now teaches science. She said she’s striking because she can see how libraries without librarians are eroding programming and other resources for students.

“I still have a job. I’m still teaching. I’m not worried financially. But I am worried about students not having access to libraries,” Celustka said.

The district said they had to cut teachers due to a $20 million shortfall that stems from an enrollment decline. Schools across the country are dealing with enrollment declines that started during the pandemic.

Debate over wages

Camas and Evergreen teachers are also both striking over which inflation metric the districts will use to determine salaries.

The two districts both use a consumer price index for Washington state, which has been in the teachers’ contract for three years. But the districts are looking to switch to a national metric known as the implicit price deflator. The change would result in lower wages this year than if the districts stick with the consumer price index.

Evergreen and Camas teacher unions both point out on their websites that the CPI was lower than the implicit price deflator in past years and say the districts are only attempting to switch metrics now that the in-state inflation rate is higher.

Evergreen Public Schools is proposing raising salaries in 2023 by 5.2%. The district wants to increase salaries using the implicit price deflator starting in 2024. Salaries in 2023 would start at $65,008 and range up to $119,568.

Alongside more planning time and smaller class sizes, Camas teachers are demanding equitable distribution of funding between music, libraries and health and physical education. They’d also like to keep the current number of curriculum planning days and want revised contract language around start and work times.

In Battle Ground, the district already uses the implicit price deflator to determine teacher salaries, and teachers earn less than their counterparts in neighboring districts. However, the union says the main issue on the table is adding more teachers and classrooms to handle the growing population in the area.

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Grace Deng
Grace Deng

Grace Deng joined the Washington State Standard shortly after graduating from Northwestern University in June 2023. Grace, who currently lives in Tacoma, is a local Washingtonian who was born and raised in Snohomish County. She has previous experience covering statehouse politics and policy for the Minnesota Reformer and the USA TODAY Ohio Network, which includes the Columbus Dispatch, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Akron-Beacon Journal.