District, union agree to put strike behind them

After months of bargaining and seven days on strike, Tacoma School District has finally settled its bargaining qualms.

After Tacoma teachers voted to strike Sept. 12, it took days of picketing, back and forth negotiations and the Governor’s intervention to come to an agreement and put students and teachers back where they belong – in the classroom.

The three main sticking points for the teacher’s union and district’s negotiations have been resolved.

Class sizes will stay the same, with a hard-cap at 24 in kindergarten classrooms. Teachers’ salaries will stay frozen for the duration of the three-year contract.

And the biggest issue of all – the district’s policy on teacher reassignment and displacement – will be finalized at a later date by a separate committee representing all sides of the bargaining parties.

“Addressing how to move teachers, in the context of having (the last) two summers where there were huge amounts of displacement, made the issue very real in the eyes of the teachers and really made it the strikeable issue,” said Andy Coons, president of Tacoma Education Association (TEA).

“With the SIG (School Improvement Grant) schools and school closures, almost every teacher in Tacoma knew someone who had been displaced. We just knew this was an opportunity for great intervention and we wanted to do it right. Having (a displacement policy) finished by a deadline was tough. Creating a committee to address this issue was a good compromise.”

After days of striking and hours of bargaining that was going nowhere, Governor Chris Gregoire intervened in negotiations Sept. 21.

On Sept. 22, union members approved the three-year tentative agreement with yes votes from 1,683 – or nearly 90 percent – of eligible union voters.

Tacoma school board approved the agreement during a special meeting Sept. 28.

“Neither the district nor the TEA made all the progress each wanted. However, it’s an acceptable agreement that takes a step forward on the issue of displacement, transfer and assignment,” said district spokesperson Dan Voelpel. He added that the district will draw down its reserve funds to help cover the economic costs of keeping class sizes the same and covering most of the costs of state cuts to teacher salaries.

The budget adopted by the school board in August already planned to draw down the district’s $39 million reserve fund by $15.4 million this year, with another $7.6 million next school year to offset deeper cuts in teaching positions and educational programs for students.

The board made a point to meet before the distribution of teachers’ Oct. 5 paychecks to ensure they would receive full regular pay now for the days they will make-up later this school year – a sort of a peace offering on behalf of the district to begin healing after a tense and emotional few weeks in Tacoma schools.

“As a district administration, including principals, we have talked about moving past the negotiations, embracing the future, recreating the team environment in each school and looking positively toward relationships with our teachers,” Voelpel said. “We hope that indicates a clear willingness on behalf of the district to put the strike issues in the rearview mirror and focus on the road ahead.”

Coons agreed that now that things have settled down, it’s time to move on and look ahead.

“The strike action is not something we went into lightly, but this was a necessary action in order to get a fair contract that honored teachers as professionals,” he said. “Now, I believe the teachers of Tacoma are closer than they’ve ever been. People are looking ahead and hopeful. We have a good contract, we can focus on our students, and we know that the district honors the profession of teaching.”

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