Amid the day-by-day, hour-by-hour changing developments in the Tacoma teachers strike, one fact remains consistent: they still have no contract agreement with the school district, and an impending lawsuit hangs over the union’s head.
As the legal events rapidly unfold, three main issues remain unresolved between Tacoma Education Association (TEA) and the district, and as of press time, neither sides of the bargaining table were willing to budge.
The district believes it has made ample compromise, while the teachers say they have been bullied to the point of striking. Both sides have accused the other of not “bargaining in good faith,” which is the root of the district’s proposed lawsuit against the union.
Meanwhile, parents, students and the community stand by waiting for news.
While two of the issues on the table directly tie into the district’s budget, teacher workload and wages, these have been the lowest-matter of priority in negotiations.
Seniority, evaluations and authority over teacher assignments have been the driving factor in the union’s unhappiness with the district’s proposal.
CLASS SIZE AND TEACHER PAY
At the start of union negotiations this spring, the district initially wanted to increase class sizes, but later changed its position to maintain the existing class size limit. TEA currently wants to further reduce class size limits by one student at each grade level. The district says TEA is ignoring the fact that the district has lost $13 million in state funding for smaller class sizes, and it estimates that TEA’s proposal would create an ongoing cost for the district at $1.8 million a year.
Concerning class sizes, TEA President Andy Coons said the union and the district have data indicating that smaller classes are preferable.
“We had strong feedback from the (TEA) membership that large classes hurt kids, while small classes help kids.
“Times have changed. Teachers today don’t just stand in front of the classroom; they differentiate lessons to give every student attention. There is high accountability for students to meet the state standard, and each student added is time taken away from another.”
With the state legislature having reduced the teacher salary schedule by 1.9 percent statewide this year, how to deal with teacher wages in Tacoma schools is at issue.
The district is proposing two possible options: to maintain the current salary schedule and teachers would take one less personal day, one less individual option day and one less planning day; or to reduce teachers’ salaries schedule by 1.35 percent and offer teachers the equivalent of 2.5 furlough days scheduled individually in full- or half-day increments with the principal.
For both options, the district is proposing that it would reinstate these days should the legislature reinstate the 1.9 percent reduction and would re-open its contract with TEA to address salaries for the 2013-2014 school year.
TEA’s position is to maintain the current salary schedule and convert four full student days to four half days in order to make up the state funding salary shortfall. The district counters that this proposal reduces student learning time.
This particular dispute in the contract is not the most pressing according to Coons.
“This is not a strikeable item for us,” Coons said. “We know we’re in tough economic times and we don’t want to be greedy, but we do have to deal with it.”
A SHIFT IN TEACHER EVALUATION
The biggest obstacle to TEA and the district reaching a settlement is how teachers will be evaluated, assigned and shuffled throughout the district.
The district proposes that starting in the 2012-2013 school year, teacher transfer and reassignment decisions will be based on teachers’ credentials, performance and individual school needs. It would establish a joint committee with TEA to review teacher transfers case-by-case and provide its recommendations to the superintendent and TEA president.
On TEA’s side, the union wants the current contract language to remain, which states that the district will transfer the least senior employee unless another employee volunteers to transfer. Under TEA’s proposal, seniority would be used as a tie-breaker.
Coons said that under the district’s proposal, school principals would have an unfair amount of power in influencing which teachers go and which ones stay.
“The district is proposing subjective language that puts a lot of power in the hands of principals, and principals rotate.”
Mount Tahoma teacher Anthony Davis agrees. He said many teachers believe the district’s proposal would give too much power to the administration to make personally-driven staff changes, which he has seen during his more than 20 years teaching Tacoma. “This is how far back teachers go. Superintendents come and go; (board members) come and go. They’re not going to come here in 2011 and tell me how they’re going to evaluate me the rest of my life.”
Teacher Darrell Hamlin has also been teaching Tacoma for more than two decades. “If you give all the power to administrators, you stifle teachers. You stifle creativity. That’s the big problem.
“Administrators come and go. We are the blood and guts of the school.”
Coons said the reason that teachers are sensitive to this issue is because “they’ve been burned the last two years.” He said that when some Tacoma schools were closed last year, it was not perceived as fair on which teachers were retained and to which schools these teachers were sent.
“There is still lingering hurt over teachers being moved at a principal’s whim, and how they were treated poorly by human resources.”
Strike picket captain Leon Horne, now in his 40th year with the district, agreed that involuntary displacement of staff is the big issue.
“If there’s going to be a process for moving teachers, we want it to be a fair and equitable process that doesn’t belittle us or our service to the district. That’s the big reason why people are so angry.
“We understand the economic issues and the economy and we can probably come to an agreement on those issues. It’s the fundamental stuff with our professionalism that we have a problem with.”
THE NEXT MOVE
Concerning all of the district’s disputed contract offerings in total, Coons said the district is presenting “a package deal” for the teachers to take or leave it. The teachers, he said, “are anxious. We’re working under an expired contract, and we haven’t had to do that before.
District spokesperson Dan Voelpel said the district has tried to compromise and is not willing to continue bargaining until it has a written offer from the union addressing how it intends to compromise on the three main negotiation points.
If an agreement can’t be reached soon, Chushcoff has scheduled a hearing for Sept. 27 that would halt the teachers from striking permanently.
Long-time Tacoma resident Mark Redal is one of many parents who are frustrated with the ineffective bargaining that he feels has gone on far too long.
“My wife and I are pretty disappointed that it as come to this. I think the initial reaction is that teachers shouldn’t be putting parents and children in this inconvenient fashion. I know they gotta do what they gotta do… but I don’t agree with what they’re doing.”
“This should have been taken care of during the summer.”
Students seem to have mixed feelings on the strike. They want the teachers to have a fair contract, but don’t want to miss school in the meantime or have their summer break cut short.
“It will affect our summer and our breaks and everything,” said Christian Issac, a junior at Foss High School. “We’re not getting our education, really, and for the parents they have to find somewhere for their kids to go now. For me, I work SPARX for Metro Parks up at Truman Middle School and without school I don’t have a job.”
“I thought (the strike) was bad because they’re affecting the students who want to go to school,” said Mason Middle School sixth-grader Mimi Smith. “One day I want to become a successful author and if I don’t have school, I can’t reach that goal. I also want a summer.”
According to Coons, teachers anticipate getting back into their classrooms sooner rather than later.
“There is hope that we can complete the contract negotiations soon and get on with what we are meant to do – teach Tacoma.”