Start of school year for Kent students delayed as teachers authorize strike

KENT, Wash. — The start of the school year has been delayed for nearly 25,000 students after members of the Kent Education Association (KEA) voted to authorize a strike amid negotiations on a new contract with the Kent School District.

School was supposed to start on Thursday, but instead, teachers will be picketing outside of their school building.

“The start of school is delayed due to a strike/work stoppage by the Kent Education Association (KEA). High school and middle school offices and the district central office will remain open,” a message posted to the Kent School District website reads in part.

On Monday, members of the Kent Education Association (KEA) voted to authorize a strike amid negotiations on a new contract with the Kent School District, and on Tuesday, the district sent out a notice to families warning the first day of school might be delayed.

Educators will be gathering outside of Kent School District headquarters ahead of a Kent School Board meeting scheduled for 6:30pm Wednesday.

The union bargaining team says the strike will begin on Thursday after an agreement was not reached.

According to KEA, members of the union bargaining team have met with district officials several times since bargaining began in mid-July to reach an agreement. Teachers say while pay discussions are on the table, the biggest sticking points this year are not about salary.

“Students and education staff need a level of support we aren’t getting,” said Kris Hill, an English teacher at Kentwood High School.

Educators say they’re looking for more counselors for students, at a time when student mental health is a big issue and more students are seeking support than ever before.

“Counselors in particular have been one of our biggest concerns — they have about 400 students each. I have 150,” Hill said.

And the union says class sizes have swelled — with most teachers starting at the contracted maximum number of kids.

“Starting at their cap. So it makes a difference. Every extra student is less time I have to check in with you, to check in with the family,” said Layla James, the vice president of KEA and former kindergarten teacher.

Hill says in all her freshman English classes, there are at least 30 students.

Kent parents say they’ve noticed the change over the years.

“Now it’s almost 25 to 30 and that’s sad,” said Beth Barr, who has kids in the Kent public school system. “I have four kids. I can’t wrap my head around how one teacher can handle so many kids in one class,” she said.

She said with two working parents in the family, a delay to school starting would be tough — but still backs the vote from educators to strike, if needed.

“We’ve just got to support teachers,” Barr said.

On Friday, the union requested a mediator, and that mediation is scheduled to begin Tuesday.

Educators said they are also seeking a “modest” pay increase to keep up with the rise in inflation.

Union officials said despite state budget funding that would allow for an increase, officials have refused to offer workers a “fair deal.” The state passed legislation last year that increases K-12 salaries 5.5% to help keep up with inflation, and school staff say they want to make sure that’s money they receive.

“Our district is behind nearby districts, and we’re worried (about) Kent’s ability to attract and retain the educators our kids need,” said KEA President Tim Martin, who previously taught at Emerald Park Elementary.

In the notice sent to families, the Kent School District said it “offered similar increases to our neighboring and regional districts … and keeps teacher salaries competitive.”

Since negotiations began, union members said they have been surprised and let down by the district, which they said has repeatedly floated several anti-union proposals.

“I’m eager to start the school year with my students. I hope it doesn’t come down to a strike, but we just can’t work under the anti-teacher conditions the district is proposing,” said Natalie Bachman, who teaches at Horizon Elementary.

Negotiations will continue on Wednesday. KEA says teachers will be showing up at the Kent School Board meeting on Wednesday evening at 6:30 p.m. to voice their concerns.

The Kent School District declined KIRO 7′s request for an interview on Tuesday.