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Was Initiative 732 all for naught?

Kathy LeTourneau lobbied hard to get I-732, which ensures teachers receive annual cost of living adjustment (COLA) pay increases, on the 2000 ballot.

She took petitions to places she frequented and urged friends and family to vote for the initiative. She was delighted when the measure passed with 63 percent of the vote in November 2000.

Kathy and her husband Pat, both veteran Central Kitsap junior-high level teachers, had topped out on the teacher pay scale. Both had earned master’s degrees and taught for more than 16 years, so annual step increases ceased to apply and post-graduate courses no longer would boost their pay.

They were at the mercy of the state Legislature’s infrequent votes to increase teachers’ salaries.

“Slowly the legislative stalling was eroding (our) pay and our buying power was going down every year,” Kathy said.

Kathy’s joy at passage of the COLA initiative soon turned to frustration, however, when she realized rising insurance costs would more than consume the 3.7 percent raise she and her husband won.

Her raise would have totaled $1,700 annually, she calculated, but the cost for the Premera Blue Cross insurance plan under which she covered herself and their two children increased by $2,400. Her husband was in the same boat because he, too, covered the children.

The LeTourneaus are not the only family grappling with this paradox.

Voters who approved I-732 might be surprised to find that for most CK teachers and staff, the COLA raise has amounted to nil.

Tracy Dewees, a keyboarding teacher and secretary at Klahowya Secondary School, looked forward to a handsome $160 per month raise from the combination of a step increase and the cost of living adjustment (COLA).

“I had planned to buy a house this year,” said Dewees, who has worked for the Central Kitsap School District for nine years. “I thought the raise might allow me to do that, but so far my budget hasn’t allowed it with the higher insurance plan.”

In fact, Dewees, a single mother, took in only $17 more per month over last year after paying an increase for her KPS insurance plan. She holds a second job as a waitress at the Black Angus restaurant to make ends meet.

She, like the LeTourneaus, had to switch to a less expensive insurance plan.

“I had to go back to the state to get DSHS to put (my daughter) on another plan because I couldn’t afford it anymore. Starting this month I won’t be able to carry her anymore,” Dewees said.

Separate plans for Dewees and her daughter likely will be inconvenient, but she said she is not alone.

“I know a lot of people who have dropped their medical and gone on their husbands’ plans,” Dewees said.

Rising insurance costs also have the latent effect of harming teachers who are pursuing post-graduate educations, a requirement to advance on the pay scale.

“I had two things going on this year. Going back to school brought me up on the pay scale and my pay went up with a step (for one more year experience). But even going up the steps, my insurance eroded that. Even with all my tuition costs, I basically stayed in the same place,” said first-year Central Kitsap Junior High School Spanish teacher Carol Gallaher, who taught part time last year.

Gallaher said she was tempted at a recent job fair by an offer from a California school, which would have paid her $55,000 to start.

“The schools (in California) are rougher, so you have to deal with that,” Gallagher said, “but teachers on the top of the scale earn more and some other states pay bonuses to teachers who are bilingual.”

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