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Tacoma Teachers Go on Strike

Kari-Ellen Elsdon, a counselor at Wilson High School in Tacoma, Wash., joins striking teachers as they picket outside the school on Sept. 13. School was closed for 28,000 students Tuesday after teachers in Washington state's third-largest school district voted to strike Monday night.
Kari-Ellen Elsdon, a counselor at Wilson High School in Tacoma, Wash., joins striking teachers as they picket outside the school on Sept. 13. School was closed for 28,000 students Tuesday after teachers in Washington state's third-largest school district voted to strike Monday night.
—Ted S. Warren/AP
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More than 1,600 of Tacoma's union teachers and other certificated employees—87 percent of those eligible to vote—decided to strike starting Tuesday following months of unproductive contract negotiations between the district and the Tacoma Education Association.

School was closed Tuesday for Tacoma’s 28,000 students, and teachers planned to picket at Tacoma’s high schools.

Meanwhile, the Tacoma School Board took the unusual step of delegating more authority to Superintendent Art Jarvis so decisions could be made quickly.

District officials planned to ask a judge on Tuesday to force the striking teachers back to work. They also planned to seek a court declaration that the strike is illegal, said school district attorney Shannon McMinimee. State law contains contradictions about the legality of teacher strikes.

Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association, the parent organization of TEA, criticized the court action.

"Taking teachers to court is not a solution," Wood said. "They should focus on offering teachers a fair contract settlement."

But School Board President Kurt Miller said: "We are going to get schools reopened as soon as we can. We want to educate our kids."

Jarvis added: "It's not just unfortunate, it's very hard on children and families."

A total of 1,623 teachers agreed to the walkout at a meeting at Mount Tahoma High School—their second gathering since Aug. 31, when a membership vote failed to reach the 80 percent threshold needed for a strike under union bylaws.

The school board met in executive session as union votes were being cast and tallied. When board members heard the results of the strike vote, Miller shook his head and board members were silent and left quickly after the meeting.

The board voted unanimously in public session to:

• Give the school district's attorney authorization to use legal tools to end the strike.

• Deny striking teachers access to school grounds and buildings, unless they appear as a parent or coach. If teachers want to work, they are welcome, Jarvis said.

• Authorize Jarvis to make the call on school closing.

• Suspend regular School Board activities and transfer "delegable powers" to Jarvis. That includes approving contracts and making staffing decisions.

Jarvis said bus drivers, food service workers and paraeducators should report for training Tuesday.

At their meeting, teachers applauded and offered standing ovations to union officials.

"It is a victory in coming together, but it is no victory having to take measures like this to communicate to Tacoma Public Schools," TEA President Andy Coons told them.

Coons said teachers are modeling for their students how to be active citizens.

"We hope the administration is paying attention," Coons said. "And we hope they will meet us at the bargaining table."

Jarvis said the union is the party that's not been a willing partner at the table.

"Apparently we are going to have to go through this process to go back to the bargaining table to achieve an agreement," he said.

Teachers and the school district are at odds over several issues. The biggest: the district's proposal to change contract language that governs teacher transfers and reassignments.

Teachers say the district would make transfers too subjective and could provide administrators with cover for age, race or gender discrimination. District officials say they want flexibility to assign teachers to schools and programs where they fit best.

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The two sides also disagree on how the district should deal with state cuts in funding for teacher pay, and they have argued over contract language that sets class size limits.

Asked after Monday night's vote how she felt about the strike, Fawcett Elementary teacher Susan Royce-Duncan said she was disappointed.

"I don't think the school district bargained in good faith with us," she said. She said issues should have been resolved earlier in the summer. "What kind of message does this send, not only to teachers, but to the community?"

Lincoln High School teacher Travis Davio said teachers don't want to be on strike.

"We want to be in the classroom with students," he said. But he said teachers want the district to offer a more "substantive conversation" on the issues.

Tacoma teachers have participated in past statewide teacher actions, as recently as the 1990s. But the last time teachers say Tacoma teachers struck on their own was in 1978.

Lincoln High School senior Stephany Ngoun, a member of her school's Future Business Leaders of America, was one of a crew of student volunteers providing baby-sitting for teachers' children during the meeting at Mount Tahoma.

"I agree with the teachers," Stephany said, adding that students don't want bigger classes. Moe Garrison, a sophomore at Mount Tahoma, said she thinks the strike is "stupid" and doesn't want it to impact her future summer plans.

"You're adults," she said. "Grow up."

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