Teachers union on strike "for the children"

Bethel (WA) teachers are on strike today, effectively shutting down schools on what was supposed to be the first day of class for 18,000 students. Teachers planned to picket schools in high-traffic areas throughout the district, which serves the Spanaway, Graham, Roy, Kapowsin and Frederickson communities.

Clover Creek Elementary School teacher Danielle Edmonds expressed the sentiment of many of the teachers who gathered Wednesday in Graham to prepare picket signs. "We're really doing this for the parents, and the community and the children," Edmonds said. In order to get high-quality teachers, we need that "TRI" (more pay for work outside the school day) package and we need class sizes manageable so we can instruct their children ... in the best way we can."

She was among nearly 800 teachers, librarians, counselors and other certificated staff members who showed up for a meeting at Frontier Park in Graham late Wednesday afternoon. All told, the Bethel Education Association represents about 1,050 staff members.

District officials hope for a quick return to the bargaining table. But no more sessions had been scheduled as of late Wednesday night, making it unlikely school will begin Friday, district officials said.

"We are waiting to hear from the mediator if there is a counteroffer to our latest proposal," district spokesman Mark Wenzel said. "The district's negotiating team stands ready to bargain at any time during the coming days. We want to return to our shared mission of educating our students."

Talks between the district and Bethel Education Association broke down Tuesday over disagreements on workload, class size and pay. That triggered an earlier decision by association members to strike starting today if there was no tentative agreement by Wednesday.

The two sides, which had been negotiating since February, declared an impasse in early August and were in mediation.

Their two-year contract ends Friday.

Teachers were already slated to receive, from the state, a 4.3 percent cost-of-living increase this school year and an additional 3.5 percent the following year. However, association members say they need more money to remain competitive with other nearby districts, including Tacoma and Clover Park.

They also want the district to reduce class sizes, to shoulder more of the cost of rising medical premiums and to devote all Initiative 728 state funds to class size reduction, instead of using some funds for overhead and staff development.

The district says it would like to pay teachers more but is hampered by inadequate state funding. Officials say the district’s latest offer represents $3.9 million in additional compensation over two years. It would increase compensation by an average of 6.5 percent the first year and 6.9 percent the second year, including the state cost-of-living increase.

It increases the pay for work outside the school day for all certificated staff, including the most experienced teachers who would receive an increase from the current $8,050 to $10,099 this year, and to $10,957 the following year.

"Our school board charged the negotiating team with three tasks: Bargain in good faith, offer a fair package and keep the district fiscally sound," Wenzel said. "We believe the package on the table represents all those values."

Meanwhile, a sampling of Bethel parents and students showed a variety of opinions on the strike.

Melissa Johnston of Roy said she supports the teachers as well as the school district and hopes they can reach a compromise soon. She has two children - Ryan, 14, and Ashley, 12 - who attend Cougar Mountain Junior High.

The strike doesn't create a huge inconvenience in the daily routines for her and her children, she said.

"I'm glad this happened now, and not three weeks from now, when you're rocking and rolling in a schedule and all of a sudden it's like, 'Whoa,'" Johnston said.

Brigitte Wiegand, who has a third-grader and kindergartner at Pioneer Valley Elementary, supports the teachers' effort to reduce class sizes but isn't pleased with the strike. "The timing is really crappy," she said. "It's happening when kids are looking forward to the start of school."

Bethel High School junior Allison Barker and Graham-Kapowsin High School junior Heather Castle are worried the strike days could extend their school year and cut into next summer's vacation. "I think it's silly," Castle said. "They should have been able to figure it out by now."

Yet she agreed it's better to have smaller classes, which she experienced last year in her French class. "We had more one-on-one time," Castle said. "If we were struggling with vocabulary, the teacher could help me."

Melissa Wolslegel, who teaches at Spanaway’s Evergreen Elementary School, expects to have at least 30 students in her sixth-grade class this fall. She said research shows that classes of 18 to 22 elementary students per teacher result in higher achievement.

Bethel Education Association President Tom Cruver said teachers are prepared to remain on strike until they achieve what they consider is a fair contract. "I am fully convinced they have underestimated the resolve of these people," Cruver said of the district.


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