Aug. 20-- Aug. 20--KENNEWICK, Wa. -- Thousands of dollars separate some of the newer teachers in Kennewick from their colleagues in neighboring districts, fueling their threat to go on strike on the first day of school.

The Kennewick Education Association and district leaders have been negotiating a new contract since late May but they remain stuck on pay for some teachers and a few other items.

The teachers received an official response Tuesday to their announcement that they are prepared to strike starting Aug. 27 if a tentative agreement isn't in place by Monday, said union president Rob Woodford.

"Teachers like stability," he said. "There is no way that any teacher wants to be on strike. It's a way to signal how serious this is."

Woodford said they are ready to return to the negotiating table but the union and district haven't set an official time to resume talking.

The district employs 1,220 certificated staff. That includes teachers, counselors, nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists and other specialists.

District leaders said in their Tuesday statement that their latest offer promises more than $100,000 to about 200 teachers at the top end of the pay scale.

Under the same proposal, another 240 teachers would earn more than $90,000.

But, Woodford said, teachers with less experience are looking across the river and see their counterparts with the same years of experience and education making up to $6,000 more a year.

While district leaders have said Pasco and Richland aren't fair comparisons, Woodford said it's only natural to look at the districts closest to Kennewick.

But Kennewick school officials contend that they don't have the same pool of money to pay their teachers.

Richland received extra compensation from the state to pay teachers because the city's cost of living was considered higher.

And Pasco has fewer experienced teachers on average so the district could pay teachers with the same amount of experience more than some in the Kennewick district.

McCleary decision

Teachers in Kennewick, much like Richland and Pasco, were caught up in negotiations last year after the districts received additional money as part of a resolution to the state Supreme Court's McCleary decision.

Statewide, the Washington Education Association had urged local unions to push for double-digit raises after the state poured $2 billion into educator pay.

While Richland and Pasco teachers got new contracts, Kennewick teachers were in the second year of a three-year agreement.

So, Kennewick schools opened up the contract for just the 2018-19 school year and the average Kennewick teacher salary rose by 8 percent. However, it was still less than the neighboring districts received, union leaders said at the time.

They accepted it knowing that they were returning to the bargaining table in 2019 for a new three-year contract.

Last year, Richland educators agreed to a three-year contract that included a 22 percent raise.

And Pasco's two-year contract pushed the beginning pay for a new teacher above $50,000.

Union officials say this created a situation where Kennewick educators were making nearly 5.3 percent less on average than Pasco teachers and 6.5 percent less than in Richland.

2019 negotiations

The Kennewick teachers union proposal hasn't changed much from when they started negotiating this year.

It calls for a beginning teacher to make $53,600 a year and a teacher with 10 years experience and a master's degree would make about $76,000. An educator at the top end would make $103,000.

This would put Kennewick teachers close to and in some cases over what Richland educators make.

By comparison, Kennewick school leaders started low and have slowly been increasing their offer in recent months.

They are suggesting paying beginning teachers nearly $51,200 and mid-career teachers would make almost $72,400. And the top end educators would be $101,900.

This would put Kennewick's top end close to the neighboring districts, beginning teachers would still make more in Richland, and the mid-career positions would be well behind Pasco and Richland.

Comparing school districts

While teachers are looking at Pasco and Richland, Kennewick has its own list of school districts that it considers more comparable.

Those include Selah, Centralia, Shelton, Longview, Yakima and Rochester.

None of those districts received any money from the state to cover a higher cost of living, and they have the same mix of experience and education of their staff, said the district.

The beginning salary for teachers in those districts runs from a low of $43,000 in Yakima to a high of $50,481 in Centralia.

In a response to the union's initial pay proposal, school district leaders called the comparison with Pasco and Richland "inherently unfair."

Woodford disagreed and said the district picked smaller districts, with only Yakima coming close in size.

"We live in the Tri-Cities," he said. "Pasco and Richland are the most natural comparison."

While pay is one sticking point, it's not the only one, Woodford said. They also are trying to reach agreement on other items including student safety and class sizes.

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