In response to staff shortages, the Edmonds School District is paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to teachers working in overcrowded classrooms.
Since the start of the 2019-20 school year, more than $800,000 has been paid to teachers whose class sizes exceed the district’s teacher-to-student class size ratios — and that’s just for one semester.
Under the contract between the district and the teachers’ union, when a teacher’s classroom enrollment goes over the allotted ratio, the teacher receives compensation, called trigger pay. In the Edmonds School District, class sizes for kindergarten through third grade are in the mid 20s, while grades 4 through 12 class sizes range from the high 20s to the low 30s.
Since the 1980s, the district has used trigger pay in instances of increased enrollment, classroom shortages and budget deficits — like what the district experienced this year. Last May, the Edmonds School Board of Directors voted to increase the classroom ratio by three students to accommodate district layoffs in the wake of the deficit.
Each year, the district sets aside a portion of its budget to fund potential trigger pay. The anticipated amount is based on funding the district receives from the state and its projected student enrollment, said Assistant Superintendent Greg Schwab.
“You can’t increase the ratio and not expect there to be a trigger cost,” he said. “We built that into the budget knowing that we were going to have to pay some additional cost this year.”
Teachers receiving trigger pay are paid a lump sum quarterly from the district’s general fund.
At the start of the school year, district staff continue to monitor enrollment and the amount of trigger pay needed for teachers who are exceeding preferred class sizes. However, Schwab said enrollment projections can be difficult, especially at the secondary level where some students leave campus during the day for enrichment programs. For instance, Running Start takes place at Edmonds Community College, which does not open until three weeks into the district’s school year.
“It’s like trying to squeeze sand, because you can’t get a grip on it,” Schwab said.
As the year progresses, district staff are able to better analyze enrollment and the needed amount of trigger pay decreases. At the start of this school year, enrollment was higher than expected, which meant the district was able to recall 25 teachers laid off after the May vote. Of the 25 recalls, 18 teachers returned to work at the district, said district Human Resources Director Debby Carter.
However, Schwab said it is easier to compensate teachers with extra pay than it is to hire more teachers. By the time district staff has figured out staffing needs, classes have begun.
“It can be really challenging to add teachers after the school year has started,” he said. “To do that, you have to pick apart classes and move students around and that’s incredibly disruptive.”
Teachers who reach the trigger threshold have the option of requesting a paraeducator to help them in the classroom instead of receiving extra pay. However, Schwab said scheduling conflicts make it difficult to bring paraeducators in to assist with overcrowded classrooms for an hour a day.
According to the district’s quarterly records, most of the schools where teachers receive trigger pay are at the secondary level. Meadowdale High School leads the district, having already paid $105,425 in trigger pay. Lynnwood and Edmonds-Woodway high schools are next at $72,425 and $52,600, respectively.
Records also show that in elementary schools, teachers receive an average of $750 per class that is overcrowded.
However, many teachers agree that extra pay is not the solution to overcrowded classrooms.
“I think if you would talk to teachers, they would absolutely tell you they don’t want trigger, they want our class sizes to be relieved,” Schwab said. “Trigger is a way we try to address it, but the ideal way is to put staffing in.”
Edmonds Education Association President Andi Nofziger-Meadows agreed that teachers prefer smaller, manageable class sizes instead of extra pay.
“Trigger pay is not something anyone sees as desirable,” she said, “We want better learning conditions for our students.”
Though the school board voted to increase class sizes by three students, Nofziger-Meadows said the number of students added to classrooms is usually higher — four or five. According to Nofziger-Meadows, when the district calculates the students-to-teacher ratio, they’re figuring in other school staff who don’t teach — like librarians, counselors and deans of students — not just the teachers.
“(The district) should have left the staffing ratio and class sizes where they were and we wouldn’t have the situation we have right now,” she said.
Also with more students per classroom, the volume of grading, emails and meetings about students also goes up. Nofziger-Meadows pointed out this leaves less time for teachers to provide one-on-one teaching for students who need extra help.
“You don’t have the time to sit down and re-explain something or take it further for a student,” she said. “You don’t have the same amount of time to listen to them.”
Too many students in a classroom could also pose a safety risk like when students work in science groups and are handling sensitive materials, Nofziger-Meadows added.
“At the end of the day teachers want to do their best for all their students,” she said. “It’s hard to feel like you’re really being successful when you don’t have time to sit down and spend with them individually because your class is just too full.”
Teachers are not the only ones dissatisfied with the way the district is handling classroom overcrowding. Edmonds resident Tom Nicholson – who has been an active critic of district spending in recent years — said it’s “outrageous” that the district is projected to spend more than $1 million in property tax revenues this school year on teachers who already receive some of the highest salaries in Washington state.
“If the district and individual school principals effectively managed class counts these funds would then be allocated as they should be for basic education,” he said. “With the current teachers union agreement expiring this summer, there will be a group of concerned taxpayers providing input on how the district is using our property tax dollars.”
However, trigger pay is not expected to disappear anytime soon. Schwab said it is still too early to tell what next year will bring for the district, but the staff is scheduled to meet this month to look at incoming in enrollment projections and discuss what revenues the district anticipates receiving from the state.
“I think our hope and our desire is that we rein trigger in again and we really truly address class size issues across our system,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to take a look at the ratios we set for this year and make some changes.”
— By Cody Sexton