District wants Wash. teachers ordered back to work

September 13, 2011 - 7:40 PM
Teachers Strike

Striking teachers picket outside Wilson High School next to a sign announcing an upcoming back-to-school night, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011, in Tacoma, Wash. School was closed for 28,000 students Tuesday after teachers in Washington state's third-largest school district voted to strike Monday night. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

TACOMA, Wash. (AP) — Thousands of students in Washington state's third-largest school district will be spending a second day out of class as school officials seek a court order to force hundreds of striking teachers back to work.

A Superior Court hearing is scheduled Wednesday morning on the Tacoma School District's request for an injunction to order nearly 1,900 teachers back to work. The district's lawyers contend public employees cannot legally strike under state law. Tacoma Education Association spokesman Rich Wood says union lawyers will be ready with a response.

Teachers hit the picket lines Tuesday after voting overwhelmingly Monday night to strike over issues that include teacher pay, class size and the way the district's teachers are transferred and reassigned. Tacoma teachers had been working without a contract since school started Sept. 1.

The strike is keeping 28,000 students out of class.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

TACOMA, Wash. (AP) — The third-largest school district in Washington state sought a court order Tuesday to force hundreds of striking teachers back to work, just hours after they walked off the job.

The teachers began picketing in front of Tacoma's major high schools. They voted overwhelmingly Monday night to strike over issues that include pay, class size and the way the district's teachers are transferred and reassigned.

The strike kept 28,000 students from attending classes.

The News Tribune newspaper reported (http://bit.ly/puJUa6 ) that the district asked a Pierce County Superior Court judge to order the teachers back to work. Attorney Shannon McMinimee said the district wants the court to declare the strike illegal.

A spokesman for the Washington Education Association did not immediately return a call seeking comment about the injunction request.

Union officials said striking teachers began arriving at Lincoln High School at 6 a.m. Tuesday, and the plan was to have teachers at the city's five major high schools demonstrating all day.

"It's my 39th year of teaching. I've never struck before," fourth grade teacher Robert Brown, 60, said shortly after helping assemble signs at Wilson High School. "I'd rather be in school, I'd rather not have adversarial relationship. The principal at my school is just wonderful. My relationship with him is great. It's very negative from the central office."

Brown said he voted to strike because of the district's attempts to move teachers around the district despite seniority, saying, "in the view of this 60-year-old, it's age discrimination."

Eighty-seven percent of the Tacoma Education Association's total membership voted Monday evening to walk out, after weekend contract negotiations failed to result in an agreement, WEA spokesman Rich Wood said.

"I hope the district administration is taking less time on legal action and reflecting why their teachers are so upset they would leave the students they love," said Andy Coons, Tacoma Education Association president.

Both the Washington attorney general and state judges have ruled that state public employees do not have the right to strike.

Tacoma teachers have been working without a contract since school started Sept. 1. The union and district negotiated Saturday but couldn't agree on a contract proposal.

A strike vote at the end of August failed by about 28 votes. Union bylaws require approval by 80 percent of the nearly 1,900 members to authorize a strike.

A 2006 state attorney general's opinion said state and local public employees, including teachers, have no legally protected right to strike. That opinion also noted state law lacks specific penalties for striking public employees.

During several past teacher strikes, Washington school districts have gone to court and judges have ordered teachers back to work.

Tacoma teachers earned an average salary of $63,793 during last school year, according to the district. They are the best-paid teachers in Pierce County and about the fifth-highest paid among the state's largest districts, behind teachers in Everett, Northshore, Seattle and Bellevue, according to state data.

The Legislature included in its state budget a 1.9 percent cut in teacher pay but left it up to school districts to figure out how to save that money. Some districts have made cuts elsewhere, some have cut teacher pay, and others have worked out compromises with their local teachers union.

The News Tribune reports that on the issue of pay, the district said Sunday it has offered teachers two options.

They could maintain the current pay schedule and sacrifice pay for one personal day, one individual optional training day and one schoolwide training day. Or they could accept an effective 1.35 percent cut in the salary schedule. In exchange, teachers would be allowed to schedule 2.5 furlough days.

The district said it has also offered to keep class size maximums at the current level. The union wants to decrease class sizes, but the district says subtracting one child per class could cost the district about $1.8 million a year.

Extra-curricular athletic activities will continue as planned, even with the teachers striking, the News Tribune reported. But coaches can't step on school grounds until 2:30 p.m.

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Information from: The News Tribune, http://www.thenewstribune.com