No end in sight for Seattle school strike; officials warn of later graduation
Parents scrambled for child-care arrangements, public libraries were filled with students, and teachers worked picket lines Monday as the largest school district in Washington state entered its second week on strike.
Seattle Public Schools have already eaten through the three days allotted for snow closures, and the school calendar has begun stretching with no end in sight.
From now on, every day schools are closed because of labor unrest will either get tacked on to the end of the school year or taken out of scheduled holidays for the district’s 53,000 students in 97 schools.
On Monday afternoon, shortly after negotiators for both sides returned to the bargaining table, the district announced that classes would be canceled again Tuesday because an agreement between the district and the Seattle Education Assn. had yet to be reached.
District spokeswoman Stacy Howard said in an email that the longer the strike goes on, “once an agreement is reached, the turnaround to get school started might not happen immediately.” She also warned that a lengthy strike could cause graduation dates to be pushed later.
On its website, the district said it had come to agreement with the teachers union “on many issues, including testing, recess time and strategies for closing the opportunity gap. However, there are some points which both sides continue to work toward agreement, including teacher and professional salary.”
During a Sunday night news conference, teacher Andy Russell, a member of the union bargaining team, said the organization’s priorities had been clear since spring, when opposing sides began contract talks.
“We need professional compensation that will make it possible to attract great teachers and keep them in Seattle, because we know how expensive it is to live here,” Russell said. “And we also made it a priority generally to have the kind of services such as special education or the other things that schools do that our students need.”
Wearing bright red “Seattle Education Association” T-shirts, a cadre of special education teachers, occupational and physical therapists, and others who work with the district’s most challenged students picketed the district’s headquarters Monday morning.
Skies were gray in the industrial neighborhood, and the streets were crowded with traffic. Horns honked in support of the pickets, whose signs demanded “Less Testing, More Learning” and “Stop Special Ed Cuts” and proclaimed “Another Parent Supporting Seattle Teachers.”
School physical therapist Teresa VanHorn, who walked the picket line, said she travels to four schools where she works with more than 25 students and has seen her caseload steadily rise.
“We currently have no caseload limits,” VanHorn said. “They’ve been escalating. We’re doing the best we can to provide services, but we need more therapists. Seattle Public Schools say they don’t have the money. But it’s federally mandated.”
The strike, which began on the first day of school, added another layer of turmoil to the state’s troubled schools. The state Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to increase education funding under the so-called McCleary decision; because the state has yet to meet the court-ordered requirements, it is being fined $100,000 a day.
In a letter to legislators Friday, Gov. Jay Inslee said that “the state has accrued millions of dollars in fines for being in contempt of the Supreme Court’s McCleary order. I’ve heard some say the fines aren’t much compared to the cost of funding basic education.
“That’s true,” he said. “But I believe those fines cost us in our standing with Washingtonians who expect we will support public education and live by the rule of law.”
On Monday, the Seattle City Council weighed in on the conflict, unanimously passing a resolution in support of the “brave educators” who are “on strike for a fair contract.” The council also asked Inslee and the Legislature to “take the necessary actions to fully fund education throughout the state.”
The school district’s most recent counteroffer, its website said, would give teachers a 14% pay raise over three years, including a state cost-of-living adjustment.
The union on Sunday offered a two-year proposal that calls for raises of 4.75% the first year and 5% the second year, in addition to the state cost-of living-increase.
In a Seattle Times op-ed published Friday, the president and vice president of the Seattle School Board said the district’s “goal is a contract that puts students first, honors teachers and is fiscally sound.”
However, wrote board President Sherry Carr and Vice President Sharon Peaslee, “we simply do not have the funds to meet current demands by the Seattle Education Assn.”
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