Seattle teachers plan to strike; School Board to seek legal action

Claire DiJulio, a second-grade teacher at John Muir Elementary School, picks up picket signs from a distribution location Tuesday in Seattle. Seattle teachers announced Tuesday night that they would strike beginning Wednesday.
Claire DiJulio, a second-grade teacher at John Muir Elementary School, picks up picket signs from a distribution location Tuesday in Seattle. Seattle teachers announced Tuesday night that they would strike beginning Wednesday. The Associated Press

Negotiations between the Seattle School District and its teachers broke down Tuesday evening, and teachers will be on strike Wednesday for the first time in 30 years.

Just minutes after the union bargaining team announced its intention to strike, the School Board voted to seek legal action against that decision. Board member Sue Peters was be only member to oppose the resolution, saying she doesn’t believe legal action is necessary.

After the vote, board President Sherry Carr said going to court may help truncate the length of the strike.

The union’s decision, and the district’s response, came after the two sides swapped last-minute offers and counteroffers, hoping to reach an agreement before school was scheduled to start Wednesday for the city’s 53,000 public school students.

Shortly before midnight Monday, the district had offered a $62 million proposal as a counter to the $172 million union proposal, according to the district. The offer included wage increases, staff increases for special education and 30 minutes of additional instruction time in the third year of the contract.

On Tuesday afternoon, the union presented a counteroffer, which the district said it was considering.

The district then offered another proposal to the union about 6 p.m. A half-hour later, the union announced its members would go on strike.

“We didn’t think it was a serious proposal,” union vice president and bargaining chair Phyllis Campano said.

If legal action is taken, the union’s members will take another vote on whether to continue striking, Campano said, and continue to work toward what they believe would be a fair contract.

“We will stay out as long as we need to get that done,” Campano said.

Teachers and other staff members will be picketing outside their schools starting 8 a.m., around the time classes would normally be starting.

Union members voted last Thursday to strike if the two sides failed to reach an agreement by the time school was scheduled to start. Parents were encouraged to have child-care plans for Wednesday and beyond, Superintendent Larry Nyland wrote in a letter to the district community.

The two sides reached agreement on a number of significant issues over the weekend, including a guaranteed 30 minutes of recess for elementary students and increased pay for certified and classified substitute teachers.

Unresolved issues include pay increases and increased instructional time. The district’s latest salary offer was a 10 percent increase over two years, which includes a state-approved cost-of-living adjustment. There were no immediate details about the union’s counteroffer. Over the holiday weekend, the union had proposed a 16.8 percent increase over the same time period.

In the state budget passed this spring, lawmakers boosted school funding across the state by about $1.3 billion over the next two years. Seattle Public Schools’ share of that amount is roughly $40 million.

The district has proposed lengthening the teacher day, which it says would help meet state requirements. The proposal would add 30 minutes of instructional time starting in the 2017-18 school year, with the two sides meeting starting next year to determine how to the time would be allocated.

The union, however, says the proposal is a way to make teachers work more for free.

In addition to seeking legal action against teachers and other school employees, Nyland’s other options included closing or limiting educators’ access to school buildings and suspending use of sick leave for striking employees, according to the board’s proposed action report.

“The district considers a strike or the concerted refusal to provide contract for services to be unlawful,” the action report said. “Such action causes irreparable harm and disrupts the education program of the district, students, families and others.”

But the board decided to go to court.

The union had said that move would show a lack of respect for Seattle educators and students.

“It’s disappointing that the school board is grasping at legalistic straws rather than focusing on ways to provide the supports that educators need to be successful with students,” Seattle Education Association President Jonathan Knapp said in a statement earlier this week. “We won’t be scared into abandoning our commitment to winning a fair contract.”

Seattle City Councilmembers Kshama Sawant, Nick Licata and John Okamoto also urged the School Board to vote against legal action.

In a letter to the board, they said they believe that the union’s demands are reasonable and in the best interest of Seattle students.

“However, regardless of one’s opinions on the union’s demands, the educators’ democratic right to speak out, organize unions, and go on strike must be defended,” they wrote.

One other school district in the state has already sought — and received — a court order ordering its teachers back to work.

But those teachers, in the Pasco School district, voted to strike anyway. School was canceled Tuesday for the fifth day in that Franklin County district, which has 17,000 students.

In 2003, Marysville teachers went on strike for a state record-breaking 49 days and voted to return to the classroom after a court order.

Kent teachers went on strike in 2009 for nearly three weeks before voting to accept a contract agreement. A judge ordered the 1,700 teachers to return to work a week after the strike began, and had the teachers rejected the offer, they would have been fined $200 a day for each day the strike continued.

The Tacoma teachers union defied a court order in 2011 for them to return to work. School was canceled for seven days during the strike before the union and school district reached an agreement.

Seattle teachers last struck in 1985; school was canceled for three weeks.