By Robert A. Vella
At the end of last month, I reported that teachers in several Washington state school districts had gone on strike. Here is what they were protesting against:
A few years ago, a lawsuit reached the Washington State Supreme Court which subsequently ruled that the government was not adequately funding education and ordered it to do so. After much haggling and delay, the state legislature complied. Monies were distributed to local school districts which then decided against the teacher raises that had been expected.
That decision by the school districts didn’t make any sense. They had received supplementary funding which they didn’t have before. The monies were specifically intended to improve the quality of education for students and to better compensate teachers whom are the primary educators of our children. It appeared to me that the decision was driven by other motives. Was this a case of administrators engaging in a power struggle with labor unions? Or, did administrators want to use that supplemental funding for other purposes? The public still does not know for sure, but this is how the strike was resolved:
District officials, who have projected budget deficits in three of the next four years, say the teacher’s wage demands are unaffordable. Teachers have been scouring the budget to find more money to justify them.
Wednesday’s developments came the day after district sent a letter to its year-round employees notifying them that they are expected to report to work. These employees, which include maintenance workers, custodians, grounds workers and some secretaries, will no longer be allowed to use vacation or personal time while out on strike.
The Service Employees International Union and the Longview Classified Public Education Association represent classified employees. Both unions voted to strike in solidarity with the teachers’ union.
Goldie Valentine, president of the Longview chapter of SEIU, said the district unilaterally changed the procedure for requesting and taking leave. SEIU plans to take an unfair labor practice claim before a judge.
The district recently reopened contracts with SEIU and LCPEA to negotiate pay raises. The groups sent their letter of intent to negotiate in June, but the district refused to open contracts with these groups until pending grievances were settled.
Mediated negotiations started up again around 9 a.m. Wednesday and continued into the evening. Union negotiators broke for two hours to meet for a discussion with Zorn and a board member.
“We got the first opportunity to actually share our version of what is wrong with the Longview budget, and they shared their information, so it was fairly positive,” Clift said.
Although Zorn and the board member did not formally bargain with the union, it is the first time they’ve met with union representatives since negotiations started on Aug. 21.
A judge sided with Longview Public Schools Friday and granted a temporary injunction to get teachers to return to the classroom while contract negotiations continue.
This decision encourages teachers to end their strike, which has kept students from returning to schools.
The teachers union will meet Sunday night to determine what its next step is. The judge didn’t lay out a penalty if the teachers union doesn’t abide by the injunction, and both sides took Friday’s ruling as an indication that they need to heat up negotiations to reach a compromise.
“I think that was an indication from (the judge) to get the job done. He did put the injunction in, but he didn’t put penalties,” Clift said.
The Longview School Board Monday night approved contracts providing 9 percent pay raises for teachers and 6.75 pay raises for secretaries, ending more than two weeks of contentious contract negotiations and a strike.
The district will now focus on rebuilding relationships with its staff, said Superintendent Dan Zorn.
“There’s a lot of work to be done from here on forward in terms of healing,” Zorn said, later adding, “I know there is trust that’s been lost, there is unity that’s been lost.”
The faculty had demanded an 11 percent pay boost, while the district early in the process said it could not exceed 6.9 percent due to concerns with budget sustainability.
Zorn said his strategy for helping the district heal is to keep an open door for those hoping to share their questions, concerns or criticisms, as well as becoming a greater presence within the schools. His focus is on rebuilding trust with staff members and the community.
“For me, the best way to do that is to spend a lot to time listening,” Zorn said.
Longview school staff and community members shared their concerns at the board meeting Monday.
“You can’t expect to retain great educators when you treat them how this district has, no matter how much you pay them,” said Chris Coffee, and English teacher at Mark Morris High School.
“I really appreciate that you’ve finally got a contract with the teachers, but I don’t think it was handled well on the board’s part,” said Dianna Adsero, whose grandchildren attend school in Longview.
Resentment towards Superintendent Zorn was also expressed by many of the parents I’ve talked with over the last few weeks. Some said they would vote against him the next time his name appears on the ballot.