Tacoma teachers will be in their classrooms welcoming students today. But they will be working under an expired contract and waiting for contract talks between their union and Tacoma Public Schools to resume.
A vote by members of the Tacoma Education Association Wednesday night at Mount Tahoma High School failed to reach the threshold required by TEA bylaws for strike authorization.
A total of 1,429 TEA members – about 77 percent of the voting membership – agreed to strike, and 148 voted against the action. TEA bylaws require approval by 80 percent of the union membership before a strike is authorized. (Although the union represents about 2,100 employees in bargaining, not all are eligible to vote under union rules.)
Union President Andy Coons said Wednesday that a strike vote would have needed 30 more yes votes. Teachers will meet again Sept. 12 for another vote on either a tentative contract or another strike authorization.
The union hopes to allow its bargaining team members to start school today and negotiate again over the long Labor Day weekend. District officials said they will communicate with the union about resuming talks.
School board members met behind closed doors for nearly two hours Wednesday, talking with staff about negotiations. They emerged just before 7 p.m. as union votes were being tallied. Relief swept through the room when board members heard the results.
“Can I start breathing?” board President Kurt Miller asked.
Superintendent Art Jarvis said he was grateful that first-day classes can go on as scheduled.
That “allows us to separate the adult issues from the kid issues,” Jarvis said. He said the vote will allow both sides to “pick up the thread of bargaining.”
The three-year contract between teachers and the district expired Wednesday.
While school will start on time today, labor negotiations are far from settled.
Teachers say they will meet again Sept. 12. If a tentative agreement has been reached by then, they will vote on it. If not, they could take another strike authorization vote.
Coons said that even though Wednesday’s vote failed to meet the high bar set by TEA rules to call a strike, it was still reflective of a strong and united group of teachers.
“Ninety percent of those in the room voted yes,” he said. “That will send a message to the school district.”
Jarvis said both sides now have more time to “figure out how to (negotiate) some very, very hard issues.”
“We have got to find solutions we can craft with the teachers, that they’re part of,” he said. “You have to craft a solution together.”
Although the district and the union have reached accord on about 80 contract provisions, three big issues still remain:
Class size: The school district initially proposed increasing class size caps by one or two students to save money. Then on Wednesday, the district announced that it was willing to keep class size limits the same as in the old contract. That agreement sets caps that range from 24 students in kindergarten to 30 in high school, with some exceptions.
Teachers say increased class sizes would hurt students.
Money: The state cut funding for teacher salaries by 1.9 percent. Districts around the state have had to bargain how to apply that cut and they have come up with a variety of solutions. Tacoma Public Schools on Wednesday said it would maintain its current salary schedule for teachers, but asked teachers to give up two days of extra pay for professional development and to sacrifice one day of paid personal leave. Teachers say they have already endured cuts in pay over the past few years, due to state cuts.
Transfers and seniority: The current contract allows seniority to be the deciding factor in cases where teachers transfer schools or are reassigned, according to the district. Coons said the district’s proposal, which would factor in a teacher’s performance, individual school needs and other issues, would be too subjective. He said teachers want those decisions to be based on quantifiable factors.
Coons said the district’s 11th-hour proposal Wednesday was confusing to TEA members. He complained that the proposal was sent to news media before union negotiators.
“We were getting calls to our office from teachers who thought it was settled,” Coons said.
He said he heard at least one elementary school principal told teachers they did not need to attend Wednesday night’s meeting because issues appeared settled. Coons said the union is consulting with Washington Education Association members to determine whether the district violated labor practices with its announcement.
But Jarvis said the proposal was made “in good faith.” He said it was the result of bargaining so far.
Teachers said the district’s Wednesday offer didn’t go far enough, and that it came at the last minute.
“It was a cheap shot,” said Kristen Marx, a teacher at Jennie Reed Elementary.
Angela Evans, also a Jennie Reed teacher, said the district offer is “not good enough yet.”
Board members said the contentious negotiations won’t cast a pall over the start of school.
“I’m delighted we get to start school on time,” said Catherine Ushka-Hall. She said she believes teachers are professional and won’t bring raw feelings over negotiations into the classroom.
But Miller acknowledged nothing is settled.
“We still have some work to do to make sure we come to a good conclusion,” he said.
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635 debbie.cafazzo@ thenewstribune.com