Editorials

Learn from history, and don’t let teacher strike repeat

Tacoma School District Superintendent Art Jarvis, who has since retired, is pursued by striking teachers in 2011 after attending a court hearing at which a Pierce County judge said he would issue a temporary restraining order requiring teachers to return to work. Bad blood is one of the enduring effects of teacher strikes, and just one reason why they should be avoided this year.
Tacoma School District Superintendent Art Jarvis, who has since retired, is pursued by striking teachers in 2011 after attending a court hearing at which a Pierce County judge said he would issue a temporary restraining order requiring teachers to return to work. Bad blood is one of the enduring effects of teacher strikes, and just one reason why they should be avoided this year. News Tribune file photo

Seven years ago, Barack Obama was president, Christine Gregoire was governor, the final “Harry Potter” movie was the summer’s top box office hit — and Tacoma School District teachers were about to go on strike.

Tacoma and its neighbors surely remember the labor unrest that simmered in the summer of 2011, and the bitter taste of the eight-day teacher walkout that September.

Fast forward to today. The Tacoma Education Association scheduled a strike vote for Tuesday. Puyallup teachers authorized their first-ever strike if their demands aren’t met by next week. Sumner is also locked in a stalemate, while other local districts have reached agreements (including a tentative Bethel deal on Friday afternoon).

We all would do well to reflect on Tacoma’s school shutdown seven years ago and how it cast a pall over our community. It might help teachers and administrators find the compromise that’s eluded them thus far, one that attracts and retains qualified teachers without planting a bomb in school budgets.

And perhaps it will prod state lawmakers to clean up the mess they made for some districts — the unintended consequences of the Legislature’s new school-funding plan, compelled by the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision.

While they’re at it, legislators should throw open the doors of contract negotiations. K-12 schools have been entrusted with their biggest slice of the state budget in 35 years, and the public has a right to see how dueling parties would spend their tax dollars.

But at this moment, the No. 1 goal should be avoiding a wave of school strikes around Western Washington. They’re illegal, ugly, disruptive and detrimental to kids.

Seven years ago, the Tacoma strike caused distress for thousands of families, many poor and working-class, who assumed the school year would begin on time and planned childcare accordingly.

The strike also landed teachers in a local courtroom, where they faced sanctions for refusing to return to classrooms. Defying a judge’s order is never a good look.

But the most enduring effect of a strike is the bad blood it stirs up.

“I’m hearing some awful things being said about teachers, just awful,” Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chuschoff said at a 2011 hearing where he postponed sanctions. He said he’d also heard awful things about school board members, administrators and those crossing the picket line.

Superintendent Carla Santorno, who was deputy superintendent at the time, probably has scars to show for it. The same goes for Debbie Winskill, the lone school board holdover, plus hundreds of teachers and administrators. We’re counting on their collective experience to help avoid a repeat.

Such animosity serves nobody’s long-term interests, especially when Tacoma teachers and administrators are due to start negotiating a new multiyear contract next spring.

The current dispute is over a one-year contract “reopener,” the result of $2 billion the 2018 Legislature set aside for teacher salary increases as part of its McCleary solution. But the funding formula is complicated, it hamstrings districts’ ability to tap local levy funds, and it creates unfair regional disparities based on arbitrary cost-of-living factors.

That means Tacoma, Puyallup and others have millions of dollars less to work with, and they risk seeing teachers flee to better-paying districts nearby.

Tacoma was left in a particularly untenable spot, so legislators gave it a one-time $12 million payout.

As a good-faith gesture, Tacoma administrators should get behind a salary increase higher than the uncompetitive 3.1 percent they’ve offered so far. (More accurately, the offer is 0.6 percent on top of 2.5 percent teachers are already due.)

But it would be irresponsible and unsustainable to approve double-digit pay raises based on a one-year McCleary windfall. To do so would put them on course to lay off low-seniority teachers and cut programs in another year or so.

Looking on the bright side, we’d like to believe this year’s labor dispute is more straightforward than what mediators had to untangle in 2011. That one stemmed from statewide funding cuts; this one stems from statewide funding increases.

That one was tied up with disagreements over teacher transfers, performance evaluations and class sizes. This one seems focused on money — and, as always, respect.

Unfortunately, taxpayers know little of what’s happening at the bargaining table, other than what’s cherrypicked for press releases, because these sessions are closed in Washington. If McCleary is the beginning of a new approach to education in our state, then open negotiations ought to be part of that.

Tacoma and other local teachers deserve a level playing field. They’re entitled to negotiate for more pay. But they should do it while starting the school year under the provisions of their current contract, not walking a picket line. It’s common for public employee unions to take this patient approach, even when a contract has expired.

We’re not saying this is a good strategy, just the least bad, and clearly better for children. The outlook will only get better if legislators correct regional funding imbalances that punish school districts like ours.

Don’t forget this is a state election year. All the passion teachers are feeling right now should be redirected where it most belongs.

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