Striking teachers and their Seattle-area school district were ordered back to the bargaining table last week by a state judge, who scolded the parties for failing to get serious about resolving a strike that had already dragged on for almost seven weeks.
Superior Court Judge Linda Krese late last week told negotiators for the Marysville Education Association and the school district to step up their off- again, on-again talks for the next four days and return to court at the beginning of this week. If the strike had still not been settled, Judge Krese said, she would decide then whether to order teachers back to school.
The action stemmed from a request by a parents’ group, later joined by the Marysville district, for a court order to stop the strike in the community, 35 miles north of Seattle. The district’s schools never opened this September because of the walkout, the longest in Washington state history as of more than a week ago.
The district and the National Education Association affiliate had last met Oct. 12 at the behest of Gov. Gary Locke, who primed them with separate meetings in his office.
State Scale Opposed
Marysville teachers are fighting the imposition of the state’s salary scale, which would shift money to newer teachers over veteran ones, as well as a plan that would allow the district to dictate the use of several work days now under teacher control. Teachers are also seeking a pay hike from local funds to compensate for the raises that Washington voters approved but that state legislators canceled in the face of the state’s budget squeeze.
As of last week, teachers were asking for a 7.5 percent pay increase over a three-year contract.
“Marysville teachers have sought modest local funding improvements to pay and benefits, similar to improvements negotiated in other surrounding school districts,” said Rich Wood, a spokesman for the MEA and the local’s parent, the Washington Education Association.
District leaders contend that they cannot afford much in the way of increases, and they say that salary money has gone disproportionately to teachers, who on average are among the best-paid in a state where the vast majority of districts follow the state scale. The officials also say that they need money—and teacher time—to make program improvements that will allow the district to better meet state and federal standards for student achievement, including those imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act.
“The district is not education-focused,” said Dan Lefebvre, who directs learning-support services for the 11,000-student school system. “That has been the challenge for this district over the last few years: Things have been focused on adults and not on kids.”
“What’s going to improve scores is having a quality teacher in the classroom,” countered Elaine Hanson, the president of the MEA.
The strike and the increasingly bitter relations between the administration and the local union have divided parents, as well as forced them to search out now-scarce daytime child care. A parent group, called Tired of the Strike, filed for the injunction.
Another group, Accountability and Integrity for Marysville Schools, has endorsed three challengers in the school board election two weeks off. That group would like to see the balance of power change on the six-member board. The current board backs Superintendent Linda A. Whitehead, who is beginning her third year at the helm of the district.
Many in the community, a mix of rural and suburban locales, are uneasy.
One father writing in court papers quoted by the Seattle Post- Intelligencer described the effect of the strike on his family. “The ambiguous laws concerning teacher strikes and the public relations disinformation on both sides has caused immeasurable tension within our household,” he wrote.
Homecoming at Marysville-Pilchuck High School has been moved to December, and many are dreading a school year that could run with few breaks to fit in the state’s required 180 days.
Even a court-ordered return to school, should it come, is far from a sure bet. TheSeattle Times calculated that of the more than 80 strikes Washington teachers have staged in the past 30 years, 34 have led to requests for injunctions. But while injunctions were granted 28 times, in only four instances did teachers return to work, the newspaper said.