Education

Mediator called in to avert Kennewick teacher strike on first day of school

Kennewick teachers vote to strike if no agreement by Aug. 26

Rob Woodford, Kennewick Education Association president, tells about the vote by Kennewick teachers to strike if a tentative contract agreement with the board and district is not reached by Aug. 26.
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Rob Woodford, Kennewick Education Association president, tells about the vote by Kennewick teachers to strike if a tentative contract agreement with the board and district is not reached by Aug. 26.

A mediator is stepping in to avert a strike that could shut down Kennewick schools on the first day of classes next week.

Kennewick School District leaders asked for the Public Employment Relations Commission to “explore possible contract solutions” between the district and Kennewick Education Association.

The commission is a state agency that assists in resolving labor disputes for government agencies, such as cities, counties and school districts.

The school district and the Kennewick Education Association have been negotiating a new contract for the 1,220 certificated staff in the district since May. That includes teachers, counselors, nurses, occupational therapists and other specialists.

The district issued a notice early Wednesday to announce that they asked for a mediator, and they have talks scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday this week.

Students are supposed to go back to school on Tuesday.

“We understand that many of our staff members, students, parents, guardians and community members have an interest in the outcomes of contract negotiations and how they may affect the first day of school and the remainder of the school year calendar,” Kennewick leaders said in the statement.

The association didn’t release a statement about the mediator, who will meet with the two sides and help them reach an agreement, but will not have the power to force them to agree.

The teachers and the district remain divided about pay and other issues. Teachers say their colleagues in neighboring districts with the same amount of experience and education and get better pay.

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The district responded by saying the comparison is “inherently unfair” because they don’t have the same pool of money to pay their teachers.

Richland received extra compensation from the state to pay teachers because the city’s cost of living is considered higher.

And Pasco has fewer experience teachers on average so the district could pay teachers with the same amount of experience more than some in the district.

The divide led teachers to vote earlier this week to strike if a tentative agreement isn’t reached before school starts on Tuesday.

Union President Rob Woodford said teachers don’t want to go on strike, but they feel like they have no choice. He declined to discuss specifics saying they want to discuss the issues directly with the district.

The strike threat issued Monday led district leaders to send out a notice to the public stating that teachers are rejecting a 6.3 percent pay increase.

The Facebook post was met with complaints apparently from Kennewick educators who said the district wasn’t responding to the pay disparity between Kennewick and Pasco.

But school district officials posted on Facebook that they don’t want to lose teachers but some may leave for a chance to teach a different grade or at a different school.

“We hope we don’t lose teachers to other districts, because we value each and everyone one of our teachers,” said the post. “We actually have hired new teachers for this fall that are coming from Pasco and Richland, districts where salaries are slightly higher than in Kennewick.”

Second year strike threat

This is the second year in a row, the district needed to call in mediators to resolve a contract dispute.

Teachers in Kennewick opened up talks last year after the districts across the state received additional money as part of a resolution to the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision.

While Pasco and Richland negotiated new contracts, Kennewick teachers were in the last year of a three-year contract.

They reached an agreement that led to them receiving smaller raises with the hope of being able to negotiate a larger agreement this year.

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.
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