Tacoma school leaders seek state intervention to end teacher strike — but the surprise move could lengthen it

In a new and unusual effort to end a continuing teacher strike, Tacoma School District leaders announced Friday they would ask a state agency with expertise in labor relations to conduct a fact-finding hearing that would lead to non-binding arbitration.

The district’s decision means weekend negotiations with teachers are on hold, makes it almost certain that school will not resume Monday in Tacoma and seemingly hands off the entire dispute to the state Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC).

Angel Morton, president of the Tacoma Education Association, said she and her members aren’t sure how the process would work or how long it would take.

“It’s a fact-finding hearing, and it takes up to a month to get the answers, and it’s a nonbinding situation,” Morton said. “And that is all I know.”

In the Puyallup School District, teachers continued their strike Friday, but bargaining sessions were expected to continue through the weekend. Puyallup School District leaders posted an announcement on the district’s website, saying parents would be told Sunday whether school would start Monday.

An announcement from Tacoma district leaders said they would ask PERC to intervene because bargaining has failed.

“Tacoma Public Schools has the best teaching force in the region,” the announcement said. “We have worked hard to support them and make the most competitive offer possible under the district’s financial limitations. After nine consecutive days of good-faith bargaining with the assistance of a state mediator from PERC, both sides remain far apart.”

Tacoma leaders added that they submitted a new proposal Friday that increased teacher salaries to higher levels than previous offers. The district’s statement also underlined its longstanding position that state lawmakers caused the current dispute by passing budgets in 2017 and 2018 that damaged the district’s finances.

Arbitration hearings conducted by PERC resemble court hearings. The parties provide evidence and testimony, and an arbitrator reviews it. The final result is a “finding” — but it’s non-binding and has no legal force.

How long would such a process take? Are the teachers legally required to participate? Answers are unclear. The district’s announcement envisioned “several days,” adding that leaders would “encourage the process to move as quickly as possible.

“The district believes this process is the only reasonable step toward ending the strike and getting a fair settlement for the district and TEA.”

Morton said teachers and their negotiators were perplexed by the district’s decision. They learned of it late Friday after a bargaining session that included a PERC mediator.

“We have to wait to find out from PERC what happens next,” she said. “They have canceled bargaining for the weekend, and the mediator has said, ‘I don’t know if I will see you again or not, good luck.’”

Morton added that her negotiating team, which includes veterans of prior disputes, found no examples of the PERC hearing process used in the context of teacher strikes over the past 25 years.

“Other school districts have requested this,” she said. “Once they have found out what it entails, they have decided, ‘Oh that’s not what we want to do.’ I’m extremely disappointed in my school district. They do not seem serious about finding a solution.

“They have the capacity to stop this. They are choosing to mess around with different options on the backs of their students. My teachers are only asking for what other people have already gotten.”

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486 @seanrobinsonTNT