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Teachers in 38 Districts in Wash. State Stage Strike

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Thousands of Washington State teachers walked off the job late last week to protest what they say are inadequate levels of state funding for education.

Nearly half of the 50,000 members of the Washington Education Association stayed out of their classrooms in an open-ended job action Thursday, idling more than 300,000 students. Another 3,000 members were planning to take less-drastic job actions such as staging demonstrations or one-day walkouts.

Union and state officials reported that the 38 affected school districts--including the two largest, Seattle and Tacoma--closed their doors rather than attempt to keep schools open and operating.

"We don't believe we can run a quality program or a safe program for students by utilizing volunteers or administrators in those buildings," said Patty McDonald, director of community relations and public-information services for the Seattle school district. "We just don't have the staff for it," she said.

Momentum to strike had been building for many months, beginning last year when the w.e.a.'s 300 locals began polling their members to gauge their sentiments.

Sixty-two locals, located primar4ily in the more populous western part of the state, elected to strike.

As the deadline approached, however, threats of legal action and community backlash apparently forced some locals to reconsider. On a second round of voting, members of the local in Olympia, for example, deadlocked on a 206-to-206 vote, thus averting a strike there.

At a meeting of local presidents on April 13, 16 of the local unions opted to pursue measures other than an indefinite strike.

The other major teachers' union, the Washington Federation of Teachers, also opted against striking. All of its members in Washington State work for community colleges.

Because the focus of the strike was on elementary and secondary education, said Evelyn Rieder, executive director of the w.f.t., "the risk was great with little reward apparent."

Even though Seattle officials kept children out of schools, principals reported to their buildings on Thursday to talk to parents or handle children who might inadvertently show up .

The district had sent home three letters to parents and posted signs on the front of buildings in seven languages, said Ms. McDonald.

Twenty-five community centers around the city agreed to provide day care for the younger of the district's 43,000 students, whose parents otherwise would have been stranded.

Striking teachers were among those volunteering at the centers. "We are cooperating in staffing community day-care centers so parents have some place where their children can stay that is safe," said John A. Cahill, a spokesman for the Seattle Education Association.

"We've tried to make it clear to the Seattle community that this is not a strike against the parents or the children," Mr. Cahill added.

Instead, the strike is aimed at the state government, specifically the legislature, which provides upwards of 80 percent of public-school funding in Washington.

The w.e.a. is demanding that the legislature increase the percentage of the state budget allocated for education, which the union maintains has slid from 50.5 percent to 46 percent in the past decade.

The union is seeking boosts in funding for school construction; programs for special-needs children, particularly in the urban districts; and textbooks and supplies.

It is also demanding minimum salary increases of 10 percent over the biennium for teachers, classified employees, and community-college instructors. Gov. Booth Gardner has recommended increases of 4.4 perel10lcent and 3.8 percent. (See Education Week, March 27, 1991.)

Although the House and Senate versions of the budgets provide more money to education, they offer smaller raises. The Senate version, however, includes $10 million in performance-based pay, according to Mary McKnew, the Governor's executive education-policy assistant.

"The Governor's position is this is the wrong method and the wrong timing," said Ms. McKnew "We want to come up with more funding for schools and salary increases, but not in our [present] economy."

About 13,000 teachers in the western part of the state staged one-day walkouts in February 1990 when the Governor decided not to use part of the state's buget surplus for teacher raises.

Representative Kim Peery, chairman of the House Education Committee, said that while he sympathizes with the union's goals, he opposes its tactics. "The reality here is we are truly not in a position to be negotiating with the union in relationship to the budget," he said. "Teachers are not employees of the state. We're trying to make it fairly clear the negotiation process and the legislation process are two very different things."

School districts have been slow to take legal action against the strikers. State law does not bar strikes, but many districts have no-strike clauses in their teacher contracts.

Judith McDaniel, communications director for the Washington State School Directors' Association, said school boards' hands were tied legally until the teachers actually went out.

"I'm sure that they will be taking them to court to enforce that no-strike clause," Ms. McDaniel said.

Others were less certain. Dale I. Daugharty, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 609, said he believes teachers and district officials were in collusion to force more money out of the legislature despite officials' public protestations against strikes.

Mr. Daugharty's union had threatened to go to court if the Seattle district had not kept its doors open in order for the 600 custodians, food-service workers, security monitors, and gardeners he represents to continue working and being paid.

"I'm extremely upset because I think they have jeopardized everybody's jobs," he said. "I think the next school levies in the state of Washington are going to be in deep trouble because of this."

Meanwhile, four parents in the 18,431-student Edmonds district filed suit the day before the strike to seek a back-to-work order. A court date has been set for April 25, according to David Wood, president of the Edmonds Education Association.

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