Tacoma teachers' strike: Day 4 and back to court

Public opinion has been running in favor of the striking teachers in Tacoma, Wash., except on the issue of teacher reassignments based on seniority. The parties are due in court Friday afternoon.

Janet Jensen/The News Tribune/AP
Striking teachers raise their hands to begin their meeting at the Tacoma Dome in Tacoma, Wash. on Thursday, Sept. 15. Teachers in Washington state's third-largest school district have voted overwhelmingly to remain on strike, in defiance of a judge's order that they return to work. The teachers walked out Tuesday over issues including pay and how job transfers are handled. A state judge issued an order Wednesday that they go back to class, but the teachers refused.

Teachers in Tacoma, Wash., are digging in their heels, striking for a fourth day Friday despite a judge’s order to return to work.

On Thursday, 93 percent of teachers voted to keep picketing after hearing the details of the temporary order issued the day before by Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff.

Officials of the school district and the Tacoma Education Association (TEA) are due back in court Friday afternoon for a hearing to see if they are complying with the judge’s order, which also included a mandate that they continue to negotiate in good faith.

A further hearing is scheduled for Sept. 27 to make a permanent ruling on whether the strike is illegal.

As of Wednesday, public opinion in Tacoma was running in favor of the striking teachers, according to a poll of 500 adults by SurveyUSA and KING-TV.

Fifty-one percent supported the strike, while 44 percent opposed it. Majorities also supported using a rainy-day fund to maintain teacher salaries, and reducing class sizes by one – both union-backed proposals.

But support has fallen off on one other sticking point for teachers: When asked if teacher reassignments should be based on evaluations (the district position) or seniority (the union position), 57 percent favored evaluations; 32 percent favored seniority.

When teachers need to be reassigned from one school to another because of changing enrollment, the district wants school administrators to be able to base decisions on a wide range of criteria, including evaluations of teachers’ skills. Under the current system, the least-senior teachers are subject to reassignment.

The subject of seniority is an ongoing fight in various school districts around the country, says Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s been a carrot for the veterans. You put some time in, and you go toward top of the list to get to the better, more attractive places to work.”

But historically, he says, seniority rules and salary schedules were put into place to protect teachers from principal cronyism. Unions dig in their heels on this issue because “they’re afraid it will go back to the bad old days of who’s the favorite of whom.”

District spokesman Daniel Voelpel says that in a typical year, only one or two teachers per school need to be reassigned.

But in the past two years, the district has had to close several schools and reassign much of the staff in several others because of requirements of a federal grant for transforming low-performing schools. That led to “unusual spikes” in reassignments, but the district was proud that “no one was laid off in any of those processes,” Mr. Voelpel says.

TEA officials, in a posting on WeTeachTacoma.org, say they offered the district a new compromise proposal on the issue of teacher pay at a meeting Thursday. They could not be reached for comment this morning.

District negotiators wanted to evaluate that proposal and plan to respond to it at another meeting of the two sides today, Voelpel says.

It’s not clear what the consequences could be for union officials and teachers for defying the back-to-work order, but in past cases judges have threatened fines.

“In the back of everyone’s mind is the realization that this will end at some point, and we all have to pull together and focus on what is best for the kids in the classroom,” Voelpel says.

The strike has kept 28,000 students out of school. Some have shown up to support the striking teachers.

“I think it’s a good example to show,” Rebecca Jimenez, a senior at Foss High School, told the Associated Press. “If you’re going to do something, stick with it. Don’t give up.”

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