Strike still on as talks progress
DEBBIE CAFAZZO; Staff writer
As Tacoma families prepared for another day without school today, negotiations between the Tacoma teachers union and the school district continued late into the evening Sunday.
The head of the state Public Employment Relations Commission, Cathy Callahan, mediated bargaining sessions.
The union said talks will resume this morning.
Earlier Sunday, Tacoma Public Schools officials said they would withdraw some contract language on teacher transfers and reassignments that the union found objectionable. They also offered a one-year grace period to keep the current seniority-based system intact.
Both sides have said administrators’ desire to have more control over where teachers work is the biggest point of contention in contract talks.
The district also said Sunday that it has offered a three-year pay plan to teachers. But it rests in part on hope that state lawmakers will restore money they cut this year.
The district on Sunday posted its proposal on its website, www.tacoma.k12.wa.us
. The proposal was given to the union Saturday.
Tacoma teachers voted to strike Sept. 12, then voted again last week to remain on strike despite a judge’s order to return to work.
The district canceled school for students today.
“We can’t put our students and their families through the mental trauma of telling them to start school, then canceling minutes before school is going to start,” district spokesman Dan Voelpel said. “That would be irresponsible on the district’s part.”
The district still wants teachers to report for work and will continue to pay those who do. Last week, the district said a handful of teachers came to work during the strike and worked on lesson plans, classroom preparation and other tasks.
A teacher Facebook page indicated that unless there was a tentative contract agreement Sunday, teachers would be on the picket lines today at Tacoma middle schools.
The district has said that if a tentative agreement is reached, it would give the union a day to gather and vote on it with the hope of starting school again the day after a ratification vote.
Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association, parent organization of the Tacoma Education Association, said he had not had a chance to review what the school district posted Sunday. The union does not intend to immediately post every proposal made at the bargaining table, he said.
The union had earlier posted a proposal on the transfer language to its website, weteachtacoma.org
“We thought it was important to set the record straight,” Wood said Sunday. “We are going to see how things go today – see what makes sense.”
Judge Bryan Chushcoff, who last week issued a temporary restraining order telling teachers to return to work, has asked that copies of all proposals between the two parties be made public by the time of a court hearing set for Sept. 27.
On the issue of transfers and reassignments, the district’s Saturday proposal offered to leave current contract language in place for this school year.
At the same time, the district proposed a committee – made up of one representative from the district and one from the TEA – to study a new process and criteria that could be used for making teacher assignments. Under the proposal, seniority could be a factor or a tie-breaker – but not the sole or primary factor.
The district wants to ensure that whatever the committee decides will “preserve specialized programs and buildings within the district.” It also said the committee could use outside experts and consultants in its work, all paid for by the district.
Finally, the district wants to ensure that whatever action the committee recommends would be adopted by both the district and the union for the start of the 2012-13 school year – a condition that the union appears unwilling to accept.
“We’re saying we need to have ratification,” TEA President Andy Coons said. “We don’t want to have whatever a committee comes up with be imposed. We want some safeguards. Something this important needs to have some checks and balances.”
One union proposal on displacement – published by the district Sunday – would have the district and the union appoint committee chairs, who would then agree on an equal number of committee members. The union proposal would make seniority a factor in displacement, and it said it would agree to “preserve the stability of each school and of specialized programs within the district.”
That union proposal also specifies that the committee study best practices and research on the issue from around the nation, create a job description and training for a displacement review committee, and recommend training for principals.
But the union’s Saturday proposal, as published by the district, asks for unanimous agreement from the committee. The agreement would then be voted on by teachers at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year.
Superintendent Art Jarvis said in a written statement that “all we ask is that after this fair process, we have a commitment that the product of the committee’s year of work be adopted. Unfortunately, the TEA counterproposal allows it to kill a year’s worth of work in two ways – by giving any committee member veto power and allowing the union to fail to ratify it.”
WEA’s Wood said the essence of collective bargaining is to ensure that both sides have a chance to approve new contract language.
He said the union supports a study committee –TEA is the one that initially proposed the idea – but that its members would have to buy in to whatever the committee came up with.
“It doesn’t make sense to impose a policy on the people affected by it without having them ratify it,” he said.
PAY AND CLASS SIZE
Although both the union and the school district say teacher pay isn’t the big issue, it is still yet to be decided.
The district wants to find a way to absorb the 1.9 percent cut in state funding for teacher pay without depleting its reserve funds. The union has insisted Tacoma’s reserves are overly generous compared with other districts.
Teachers point out that school leaders elsewhere have agreed to keep teacher pay intact by tapping district reserves. But the district argues that other school districts have also asked teachers for furlough days.
Tacoma’s latest pay proposal would ask teachers this year to give up pay for three days: one for personal leave, and two for training.
In 2012-13, teachers would get those paid days back – unless the Legislature makes further cuts to funding. The district estimates the give-back would cost about $1.7 million.
If more cuts are made by the state, teachers would continue to sacrifice the same three days’ pay, and the contract would be reopened to deal with additional state cuts.
In the 2013-14 school year, the three-day pay cut would apply unless the state reinstates money lost in the 1.9 percent funding cut. And the contract would be reopened to deal with any additional state funding cuts.
That is significantly different from the last proposal published on the union website Friday.
It asks to keep the current contract pay scale, and it asks the district to make up the state cut out of its reserves. Then in 2013-14, the union would like to reinstate old contract language that includes a 1 percent pay increase.
Wood said the union intends for its proposal to apply only to a two-year agreement. The request for a raise in the third year “would still have to be negotiated then,” he said.
Coons said Sunday night that proposals on pay were going back and forth quickly, and that he was reluctant to comment on specifics.
The district has agreed to hold to current contract language on class size. The union’s latest proposal has asked for class size reductions because they would benefit students. But the district has said smaller classes aren’t realistic because funding that helped reduce them was cut by state lawmakers this year.
STRIKE HALTS WEEKLY BOARD MEETING
The School Board does not plan to hold its regular meeting Thursday. At its last meeting Sept. 12, the board suspended its regular meetings and transferred “delegable powers” to Superintendent Art Jarvis.
The action gives Jarvis the ability to take care of routine district business, but does not give him sole authority to sign a collective bargaining agreement, said district spokesman Dan Voelpel. That is a board responsibility, he added.
Asked if the School Board would host a community forum instead, Voelpel said none is planned. He cited fears that union supporters would “hijack” such a meeting.
He said the school district would continue to post updates on its website.
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635