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Originally published September 3, 2013 at 9:25 PM | Page modified September 4, 2013 at 11:41 AM

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Seattle schools start Wednesday as teachers approve contract

Seattle teachers have voted in favor of a new contract with the school district, paving the way for school to open as scheduled on Wednesday.

Seattle Times education reporter

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Seattle teachers approved a new two-year contract Tuesday, ending contentious contract negotiations that raised the possibility of the first teachers strike in the city in decades.

The new contract was approved by a show of hands at Benaroya Hall with about half of the district’s roughly 3,000 teachers in attendance.

The vote paved the way for school to open on time Wednesday, even as many young students probably went to bed Tuesday night without knowing for sure whether they would be going to class in the morning.

No teacher seemed entirely happy with the contract, but a majority decided it was good enough, with a 2 percent raise for the 2013-14 school year, 2.5 percent in the year after, and a couple of other changes that will add another 1.8 percent as well. The contract also included compromises on a number of other issues, too, including the use of test scores in judging how well teachers do their jobs.

Lynda Dowell, a math teacher at McClure Middle School, said the contract offered “inch by inch” progress.

Laura Hauswald, who teaches science at Eckstein Middle School, said she was relieved the contract was approved, even though it didn’t have more of what teachers wanted to see.

“I’m looking forward to getting back to my students tomorrow,” she said.

Jonathan Knapp, president of the Seattle Education Association (SEA), praised the contract as a strong one, with as many important changes as the previous contract, approved three years ago.

The agreement will bring big changes to how teachers are evaluated, he said, based on requirements in a new state law. It also includes an overhaul of special-education programs in Seattle, which school district and union leaders both hope will bring improvement to services that have drawn considerable criticism for years from parents and the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The special-education changes were “one of the biggest wins in the contract,” Knapp said. “It is a major, major shift that has been led by the SEA.”

Not everyone was happy. Some teachers estimated that as many as 40 percent of the teachers present voted against approval.

Superintendent José Banda “was very, very lucky” to avoid a strike, said Garfield High teacher Jesse Hagopian, who estimated that about 40 percent of the teachers at the meeting wanted to return to the bargaining table.

Hagopian said he’d never seen a bigger revolt against a proposed contract.

The teachers first took a voice vote, then Knapp called for a show of hands. He thought that made it clear the contract was approved, but then a teacher called for written ballots, although a majority of teachers voted against that.

For the district’s part, Banda said he was happy the contract was approved. Labor harmony is important to him, he said, given that the district and teachers need to work together to help students achieve.

“A lot of work lies ahead,” he said. “We can’t do that without working with teachers as partners.”

For the dissenting teachers, one big issue was the use of test scores in evaluations, which the union proposed suspending given the number of testing and evaluation changes coming up in the next two years. The district acknowledged that changes are on the horizon, but it didn’t want to stop using test scores in the meantime. As it stands now, test scores aren’t an official part of teachers’ formal evaluations, but if testing shows students aren’t making enough progress, that can trigger a closer look at teacher performance.

The union and the school district reached the tentative agreement early Sunday after a week in which teachers raised the possibility of a strike. Teachers already had rejected one contract offer from the district, and teachers held informational pickets as negotiators returned to the bargaining table. The two sides ended up with an agreement that struck some middle ground on pay raises, increased the length of elementary teachers’ workday and kept test scores as part of how teacher job performance is evaluated.

Union leaders said the pay increases are the biggest that teachers have received in five years. By some counts, the new contract will maintain Seattle as one of the top-paid districts in the Puget Sound area, although some teachers point out that the cost of living is higher here, too.

Though the district succeeded in adding 30 minutes to elementary-school teachers’ workday, putting them on par with their middle- and high-school counterparts, it compromised in how they can use that time, with teachers retaining much flexibility.

The agreement also calls for the district to work toward setting limits in the caseloads for school psychologists, speech therapists, and occupational and physical therapists, and a pledge to add more such employees.

Two other groups within the SEA approved new contracts on Tuesday, too — paraprofessionals, such as classroom aides, and school secretaries.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @LShawST

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