Gregoire praises Tacoma school deal; teachers vote at noon, could be in class Friday
DEBBIE CAFAZZO; Staff writer
Tacoma teachers will vote midday today on a tentative agreement reached by negotiators for the teachers union and the school district in Gov. Chris Gregoire’s office Wednesday.
If teachers approve, school will start again for students on Friday, ending a strike that began Sept. 13.
Members of the Tacoma Education Association will meet at noon at Mount Tahoma High School for a ratification vote, the union said.
Details of the agreement were not released Wednesday night. But in a news conference about 10 p.m., Gregoire praised the agreement as “pretty impressive” and said it could serve as a model for school districts across the state.
“Trust starts today,” Gregoire said, noting that she will be watching how the agreement plays out, along with parents, teachers and the district.
Union President Andy Coons said he wanted teachers to be able to read the agreement before details are released publicly.
The two sides had been mired in negotiations surrounding three main issues: teacher transfers and reassignments, pay and class size.
Gregoire called the two sides to her office Wednesday after the district broke off talks Tuesday night. She asked them to meet together Wednesday morning in Tacoma, but those talks were unfruitful.
Once they got to Olympia, progress was slow but steady through the evening, both sides reported. In the end, Gregoire said both sides worked “in absolute good faith” to get Tacoma’s 28,000 students back to class.
School Board President Kurt Miller thanked the governor for her intervention.
“With her calling us to Olympia today, I knew she would get the job done because that’s the kind of governor she is,” Miller said Wednesday night.
Coons also thanked Gregoire and the Tacoma community for standing beside teachers during the strike.
“It’s been a long process, but we got what we were asking for – a fair contract that is good for students,” he said.
Superintendent Art Jarvis extended his gratitude not only to the governor, but also to the parents and children of Tacoma.
He said that as the school district enters a new era of change, it was time to “begin the process of healing.”
Gregoire said the two sides had “tough issues to get through.” But she said the two sides’ spirit of willingness should lead to success.
The district had proposed adding new criteria to contract language governing transfers and reassignments, rather than using seniority exclusively. The district said it wanted more flexibility in staffing. But teachers said they feared criteria that couldn’t be quantified, saying that subjective language would make it easy for principals to play favorites or discriminate.
In previous negotiating sessions, both sides had proposed creating a committee to resolve that most contentious issue. But there had been disagreement over how the committee would function and whether its work would be binding without a teacher vote. Proposals on pay and class size had also moved back and forth during negotiations.
If the deal is ratified by teachers today, it will end the first citywide strike in Pierce County’s largest school district since 1978, when teachers were off the job for 29 days. Tacoma teachers also participated in a statewide job action in the 1990s.
It became clear that a breakthrough might be pending when district officials waited until 8:30 p.m. Wednesday to announce that classes would be canceled again Thursday. Throughout the strike, the district has typically given up and called off classes by midafternoon the previous day.
The parties worked through dinnertime behind closed doors, either ordering food or bringing in their own and ducking out for the occasional restroom break.
Tacoma Public Schools officials and union members showed up at the Capitol shortly before 3 p.m.
The governor doesn’t have the authority to force a resolution between teachers and school districts. In this case, that power rests with Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff, who ordered both sides to settle their differences and report back to him Tuesday under the threat of teacher sanctions.
Gregoire could, however, apply pressure by using the bully pulpit of her office. That’s what she did with doctors and lawyers in early 2006 when she presided over four weeks of intense, closed-door negotiations that led to reforms to Washington’s medical malpractice system.
A spokesman for the governor said he didn’t know of a previous teacher strike during Gregoire’s tenure when she brought opposing sides to Olympia, although she has worked behind the scenes before.
“Ordering the strike to end is not going to end the problem,” said spokesman Cory Curtis. “You have to get both sides in agreement for a long-term solution.”
School district attorney Shannon McMinimee said she planned to take action today to resolve the court case that Chuschcoff has presided over.
The announcement of a deal comes just in the nick of time for families weary of the strike. On The News Tribune’s website, parent Tim Waterbury reflected the tenor of the conversation among commenters Wednesday evening: that it’s time for educators to stop negatively impacting parents and children.
“It is this parent’s opinion that the strike has become redundant and should be stopped,” Waterbury wrote, “otherwise I will move my child out of the school district and send him to a school where I know that he will be given an education instead of just sitting on his rear wondering why Daddy is teaching him and not his teacher.”
Parent Teresa Hatton was cheering the news Thursday morning.
Im a single mom doing it all by myself, she said, adding that childcare during the strike has been a struggle. She ended up shuttling her son, Matthew North, a seventh grader at Jason Lee Middle School, to a Boys and Girls Club on her lunch break from work.
Hes been anxious to get back to class, she said.
I have a 12-year-old whos ecstatic, Hatton said.
Peter Marken works as a general contractor and has been able to take his son, Gabriel, a fifth grader at Sheridan Elementary School, to work with him during the strike.
Marken said Thursday morning that he hasn't followed the back-and-forth between the teachers union and district closely, but was glad to hear both sides have reached a tentative agreement.
"Nobody likes the inconvenience of being saddled (unexpectedly) with day care," he said.
Gabriel, 10, said with a smile that he didn't mind missing class. When asked if he was excited to return to school, he was noncommittal.
"Kind of," the fifth-grader said.
Gunnar Ray, a kindergartner at Lowell Elementary School, was more enthusiastic.
"I miss playing recess," he said. "Everybody likes playing recess."
His mom, Jennifer Ray, said the strike has hit her family in the pocketbook because they had to arrange for extra child care. She said she has questions about what happens next.
"I'm interested to see how we're going to make up the days," she said.
The district had an answer to Ray's question Thursday morning. If teachers approve the tentative agreement and school resumes Friday, there will be several make-up days required of teachers and students. The Tacoma School District says details of the new schedule will be released following the ratification vote.
When Gov. Gregoire was asked Wednesday night if she felt any guilt over state cuts to education that may have precipitated some of the anxiety during Tacoma contract talks, she talked about tough times leading to hard funding choices.
She said she would talk about that subject again today when she announces her call for a special session of the Legislature, where she said education will be "back on the table" due to another revenue shortfall.
"The last thing we ought to be doing is cutting teacher salaries," she said, adding that she also regrets cuts for funding to keep class size small. "We shouldn't be cutting education at all. Of course I have pangs of guilt. I don't have any options."Staff writer Sara Schilling contributed to this report.