Across the state, the salary of public school staff and educators, including those at the Sequim School District, have stayed stagnant while the cost of living continues to increase.
“The average senior teacher has lost something like $30,000 over the last six years,” Brian Berg, chief negotiator for the Sequim Education Association, teacher and secondary math professional development coordinator, said. “At our meetings, we’ve pretty much agreed we need to reinstate the COLA (cost-of-living-adjustment).”
Despite passing in 2000 by 63 percent, since 2008 the state Legislature has paused Initiative 732 that allowed teachers and other school district employees to receive COLA. Now, looking ahead to what would be the seventh year without salary adjustments, many school personnel statewide, including Sequim School employees, are feeling impacts from the suspension and seek to restore the COLA.
“It seems to me that the voters want to have fully funded education,” Elizabeth Joers, paraeducator and Sequim Association of Paraeducators president, said. “That’s what the McCleary decision was all about and employee salaries are a big part of that.”
Joers admits most teachers don’t pursue education for the money, but she at least expects the wage to be enough to keep up with inflation.
To help increase awareness and spread information in hopes of getting both the House and Senate to resurrect COLA, Joers has been involved with ongoing conversations in Olympia and participated in a wide effort to create picture books from various school districts to share with representatives.
Within the Sequim School District about 65 paraeducators assist teachers and often work one-on-one with students. However, Joers said she knows of “a few paraeducators who may not being doing it much longer because they can’t afford it.”
“I am at school during the day and I see how hard teachers and staff work,” Joers said. “I enjoy being a positive influence in a student’s life and there’s a satisfaction in helping them achieve their goals, but it’s difficult financially. Luckily, I have a husband with a good job.”
Paraeducators aren’t alone in trying to balance finances with their passion for education.
Dave Hasenpflug, a science teacher at Helen Haller Elementary for about 20 years, seeks summertime landscaping and house painting jobs to supplement his income.
“I’m at the top of the pay scale and if I were to just work the contract hours from 7:30 to 3:15, I’d make $45 an hour, which sounds pretty good right?” Hasenpflug said. “But, really nobody works just those hours. That doesn’t include the time grading papers and setting up class projects, like science experiments so it really works out to be significantly less.”
Hasenpflug doesn’t feel he would be any better off as a teacher if his salary kept up with the cost of living because it’s his passion and he realizes to be a teacher one must be somewhat “intrinsically motivated.” Instead it’s more a matter of “value and respect” with the majority voters supporting COLA, yet the Legislature continues to override it.
“Without that COLA, you’re always looking for ways you can make up for that money … that’s just the reality,” Hasenpflug said. “I am not whining but there’s really an issue of respect.”
“Teachers should be treated as professionals,” he said. “I can’t imagine other professionals we expect to perform, like doctors, to always have their hand out to Legislature.”
Beyond the direct increase to school employees’ salaries, Berg predicts a shortage in teachers.
“I recently read somewhere that fewer students are pursuing teaching,” he said. “And the salary probably has something to do with that.”
Additionally, because part of a teacher’s retirement pension is based on the average of the highest five consecutive years whenever they occurred in the salary history, COLA reflects that and with the multi-year suspension, some teachers can’t afford to retire, Berg said.
“We are struggling to get teachers,” Berg said. “We had a math opening and had very few applicants wanting to move out here.”
Joers makes the argument that reinstating COLA would help boost the state, but also the local economy.
“The amount of money that’s lost by suspending COLA is also money that is not going back in our economy,” she said.
In early April, both the House and Senate released their proposed 2015-2017 budgets and each provide funding for COLA, but only for those employees funded by the state.
“School districts will be forced to use levy money to provide similar increases to those staff funded with local funds,” Randy Dorn, state superintendent, said in his statements on the House’s and Senate’s proposed operating budgets.
“Passing off this obligation to districts puts a burden on local taxpayers that is unfair and inequitable to districts, making it more difficult to close achievement gaps,” he said. “This goes beyond just an educational issue to a civil rights issue.”
For the 2014-2015 academic year, between the high school, middle school and elementary, 27 teachers’ positions were supported by local levy funds, Brian Lewis, Sequim School District business manager, said.
“There’s a ripple that occurs if the state mandates COLA, but doesn’t cover everyone,” Lewis said.
Until the House and Senate near an agreement, however, Lewis won’t start crunching too many numbers, he said.
For more information on COLA and other education-related topics, visit www.washingtonea.org.