8/30/07

Seattle-area teachers vote to strike Wednesday

Teachers and staff members of Shoreline (WA) School District's two unions voted Wednesday night to begin a strike the day school starts next week if they fail to reach a tentative agreement on a new contract.

The majority for the strike vote was "overwhelming," said Elizabeth Beck, co-president of the Shoreline Education Association (SEA), which represents the teachers in the district. More than 85 percent of each of the two union groups approved, she said. "We did not debate long," she said. "They were very committed; they were very supportive."

School district spokesman Craig Degginger called the vote "disappointing." The district hopes to reach an agreement this weekend with the Shoreline Education Support Professionals Association and the SEA and avoid a possible strike, he said. School is scheduled to start Wednesday. If the district and unions fail to reach an agreement by 6 a.m. Tuesday, teachers and other staffers will go on strike Wednesday, Beck said.

Degginger said the district hasn't yet decided if classes will be canceled if teachers are striking, reiterating that he hopes it won't come to that.

Beck also said she hopes the strike will be averted.

"We are hopeful that we will be in our classrooms on Wednesday. We're willing to take this action in support of the future of our school district," she said.

The issue represents the latest fallout from a two-year-old financial scandal. The district discovered in 2005 that its budget team had made financial missteps that resulted in a $2.7 million deficit; Superintendent James Welsh resigned last year.

The district has made drastic cuts to try to climb out of that hole, including closing two elementary schools and cutting 40 teaching positions and eight administrators, Degginger said. The district has no reserve and is under state oversight, which means it must balance its $86 million budget, Degginger said.

Degginger wouldn't discuss the negotiations, but Beck said the district wants to fund state-mandated teacher pay raises by reducing benefits and classroom supplies and personnel.

The administration's proposal for both teachers and support staff includes cutting hours, reducing professional-development pay, increasing insurance costs and reducing assistance for special-education students, according to the SEA.

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"Students and staff should be the school district's first priority," Beck said. "We feel they need to put efforts into cutting elsewhere."

Initiative 732 mandates a cost-of-living pay raise for teachers and staff members. The state funds part of that, but the district is responsible for about $750,000, of which $429,000 would go to teachers.

The teachers union in Pierce County's Bethel School District also has voted to strike. Classes were scheduled to start today, but schools will be closed, said a district official, adding that schools will likely be closed Friday as well.

The 10,000-student Shoreline district, just north of Seattle, has a good academic reputation.

Before Wednesday's strike vote, teachers and support staff had been writing letters to the Shoreline School Board and picketing summer board meetings to protest the changes proposed to their contract.

They have been negotiating with the district since March and had their last scheduled meeting with district negotiators on Monday.

They also have filed two unfair-labor-practices complaints with the state against the district over alleged threats and other actions by administrators during negotiations.

The current contract ends Friday. Teachers returned to school Tuesday to begin staff work days.

(seattletimes.nwsource.com)

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