If Monday’s confusing signals from Tacoma School District leaders are any indication, the ongoing strike by Tacoma teachers is far from over.
Tacoma teachers voted last week to strike after weeks of negotiations over hoped-for salary increases broke down. Teachers want increases that compare to raises received by other teachers across the state. Tacoma schools leaders say they can’t afford it. The district announced Monday afternoon that school was canceled Tuesday.
Monday, hundreds of teachers gathered for a rally outside the school district’s central administration building, waving signs and wearing red as union and district negotiators continued to wrangle inside.
The nature of those negotiations grows murkier by the day. Friday, district leaders announced via the school district website that they had halted negotiations and requested a fact-finding hearing by the state Public Employment Relations Commission.
“Due to the lack of progress on bargaining with a state mediator, we made our formal request for fact-finding and arbitration by the State Public Employment Relations Commission,” the statement said.
In fact, that request wasn’t formally submitted until Monday afternoon, according to Mike Sellars, executive director of PERC — and it wasn’t a request for fact-finding.
“They’ve not conclusively asked or notified us that they’ve conclusively asked for a fact finding,” he said during a midday phone conversation. “I don’t have any email, or anything saying, ‘Yes, we intend to pursue a fact-finding.’”
Sellars added that he spoke Saturday with representatives from the district and the Tacoma Education Association, the union representing teachers. He said he explained the hearing process and that PERC would attempt to expedite it if district leaders chose to move forward.
In reality, the district submitted a “grievance arbitration request” at 3:12 p.m. Monday, after a day of negotiating with teachers, and after receiving questions about the fact-finding hearing from The News Tribune.
School district spokesman Dan Voelpel forwarded a copy of the request, saying district leaders filed it Monday “to avoid any equivocation.”
Reached later Monday, Sellars said he would take a look. After taking a look, he called back and said the district’s request didn’t appear to be seeking a hearing of any kind.
“They’re not requesting a fact-finding,” Sellars said. “They’re only requesting that we send a list of arbitrators. It’s not a fact-finding, and if they want to engage in arbitration, I haven’t seen any sign that the parties agree.”
The district’s request simply seeks binding arbitration, which isn’t part of PERC’s fact-finding process under state law. The process envisions fact-finding and recommendations.
“We have no authority to impose it,” Sellars said. “There’s no authority under the statute to just do that. They would have to at least agree.”
For the record, they don’t.
Tacoma Education Association president Angel Morton said Monday that district leaders wanted an unacceptable twofer: binding arbitration plus an agreement that teachers would return to work during the arbitration process, with no knowledge of the outcome.
“We said, ‘No, thank you,’” Morton said.
The impasse led to dueling combative statements from union leaders and the district, posted Monday on their respective websites.
“Tacoma Education Association declines Tacoma Public Schools’ request to join together in a binding arbitration process and immediately end the strike,” the district’s statement said.
“Tacoma Public Schools wants to walk away from their responsibility to reach a fair settlement,” the union’s statement said.
Sellars said he would send a note to school district leaders that would explain the fact-finding process and PERC’s lack of authority to impose binding arbitration. He said he thinks a fact-finding hearing could be completed in two days, with findings to follow as quickly as possible.
Later Monday, at 5:34 p.m., Renee Trueblood, the school district’s general counsel, sent a note to Sellars that explicitly requested a fact-finding hearing while referencing a phone conversation from the weekend.
“We want to reiterate that we still want a fact-finder as this is one of the statutory remedies available to us,” Trueblood wrote. “We are looking forward to your assignment of this neutral (fact finder) as soon as possible. Please let me know immediately if you do not intend to assign a fact-finder this week.”
Trueblood’s note also repeated the request for voluntary binding arbitration. Sellars responded within 10 minutes, saying he would assign someone quickly to handle the fact-finding process.
Historically, the use of fact-finding hearings to settle teacher contract disputes is rare, Sellars said. The agency has one such active request from the Battle Ground School District, where teachers are also on strike
“It’s not used very often,” he said. “The last one we conducted was in 2016 with the Granger School District.”
The Granger case revolved around a new school security system, not salaries, according to PERC records. Records of fact-finding hearings associated with bargaining and contracts date back to the 1970s.
The hearings and findings fall into predictable patterns, records show. A fact-finder, typically employed by PERC, but sometimes hired by the parties, weighs the claims and counterclaims of the two sides and makes recommendations.
Such hearings aren’t guaranteed wins for one side or the other. Records of a 1983 hearing involving the North Kitsap School District found that teachers overestimated the district’s revenues. A 1980 fact-finding decision by PERC involving Kent teachers led to a straightforward recommendation of an 11-percent salary increase, among other findings.
Sellars could not say Monday when such a hearing would take place in the Tacoma case, but he said it would be open to the public, conducted locally and quickly. If the district and the teachers rely on PERC arbitrators to conduct the hearing, neither side pays any costs.
“I’m not sure where we would do it, but we generally go out to where a dispute is,” he said. “We probably would be looking to have it in such a manner that we can expedite the process.”