Behind the Teacher Contract Dispute: Issues, Numbers, and our Shrinking Reserves

In the past few weeks, the public dialogue between the Tacoma Education Association and the school district has grown heated (to put it mildly.)  Beyond all the emotional rhetoric, however, there are real issues at stake that effect students, teachers, and the district's ability to weather the ongoing economic storm.  

Union leaders insist the primary issues in dispute are not monetary.  Beyond the salary negotiation that has made the papers in recent days, teachers are also negotiating classroom sizes, curriculum decision making, and teacher evaluation/development methods.  I asked TEA president Andy Coons for more information on the status of these issues.  This was his reply:

I guarantee those issues are not lost – in fact they are THE  MAIN issues at the table this second. The media and administration seem to want to portray the main issue as money right now - which is not our main issue in any sense of the word but it makes an easy public sell – fits nicely into the public stereotype of union. Our #1 is to maintain class size and also to avoid a “one size fits all” curriculum mandate made by people who are not in the classroom with relationships and understanding for the students they teach.  

I'm not clear on what's behind the curriculum dispute, but classroom sizes have been cited in missives from both sides since negotiations kicked into high gear a few weeks ago.  I asked Tacoma Public Schools Public Information Officer Dan Voelpel for the numbers behind the classroom size debate.   How many students are in an average classroom now, and how many would be if two were added? (As the district is proposing)  What is the maximum number of students per classroom?

It varies depending on the grade level, Jennifer.

The following numbers come out of the current TEA/District collective bargaining agreement.


K: 24

1-5: 25.3 (average per building) with no classes higher than 27 in grades 1-2 and 28 in grades 3-5.



(although music and physical education classes can have up to 34)



(although music and physical education classes can have up to 35)

Special education classes have their own set of complex formulas, but generally have a limit of 12.

It’s important to note that generally speaking out in the field most classes – due to the ups and downs in enrollment – have far fewer students than the maximum allowed. That happens for three main reasons:

1.       Enrollment comes in a few students over the class size limit, which requires splitting the class in 2 and hiring an additional teacher

2.       Not enough students enroll at a particular grade level

3.       In high school, where students choose to sign up for classes, some specialty classes – foreign languages and AP classes, for example – don’t have enough student interest to fill up, but the school still offers them. 


In other words, an addition of 2 students per classroom across the board would change maximum class sizes to:

Kindergarten: 26 students
Grades 1-2:  29 students 
Grades 3-5: 30 students
Middle School: 30 students
High School: 32 students 

...but average class sizes would be smaller, as not all schools are filled to capacity.    

The TEA points to a "45 million dollar" surplus as evidence that the school district can afford to keep class sizes small and maintain teacher salaries, despite a 1.9% state salary funding decrease and withdrawal of state funding for smaller classrooms.  The district, however, cites both a smaller current reserve and a two year plan to use it to preserve vital programs. 

Budget Reserve

(Sorry about the sideways orientation)  At the end of 2013, if there are no further surprises in the state budget, Tacoma would be left with only 16 million of it's current 39 million dollar reserve fund.  

In the end, it seems likely teachers and district administrators will settle on some middle ground:  something between a 1.9% pay cut and maintainance of current salary levels, somewhere between .5 and 2 additional students per classroom, and some small concessions on both sides in the curriculum control and teacher evaluation debates.  

With less than a week to go before the start of the new school year, I am trying to have faith that both sides will put aside blame and settle into a plan that aligns with both fiscal reality and the best interests of the students.