No school again Wednesday in Kennewick. Teachers to return to picket lines

Strike begins by Kennewick teachers

Rob Woodford, president of the Kennewick Education Association, talks about the strike by Kennewick teachers starting on what would have been the first day of the school year.
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Rob Woodford, president of the Kennewick Education Association, talks about the strike by Kennewick teachers starting on what would have been the first day of the school year.

Kennewick schools will be closed again Wednesday after a state mediator sent exhausted negotiators home about 7 p.m. Tuesday.

The strike will keep 19,000 students on summer vacation for a second day while schools in Richland, Pasco and other communities opened Tuesday.

School sports practices and games are still on schedule because the coaches have separate contracts.

Red T-shirts and picket signs replaced yellow school buses in Kennewick on what was to be the first day of classes Tuesday.

Striking teachers were joined by paraeducators and other local union members as they paced in front of schools throughout the district for much of the day.

Statewide, teachers in the Toutle Lake School District near Longview also voted to strike starting Wednesday. And Ellensburg educators are preparing to strike next week over over pay and class sizes.

In Kennewick, Jill Mullhausen, a teacher at Phoenix High, walked with fellow teachers from Amistad Elementary on Fourth Avenue. She brought her two children, ages 10 and 7, with her.

“It’s important to me that the teachers are heard and listened to by our employer and that we get a contract that will retain and attract the best teachers,” she said. “I want the teachers that are taking care of my students to feel valued and to feel like professionals so that they stay and give the best possible education to my kids.”

Strike Westgate teachers
Striking Kennewick teachers and their supporters carry picket signs Tuesday on West Fourth Avenue near the Westgate Elementary School. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Melyssa Wandling, a Chinook Middle School teacher, joined with fellow educators in front of the Carousel of Dreams near Southridge High School.

She said they were receiving great support from the community, but they are all hoping to return to work soon.

Still negotiating

As teachers picketed, union representatives and school district officials returned to the bargaining rooms.

A state mediator is taking proposals back and forth between the sides during the negotiations between Kennewick School District leaders and the Kennewick Education Association.

The union and district had been negotiating off and on all summer on a new three-year contract and the mediator arrived Aug. 21 to help.

KEA striking teachers
Striking Kennewick teachers and their supporters wave to passing motorists early Tuesday morning on West Vineyard Drive near Amistad Elementary School. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Pay continues to divide the sides. Teachers say they want their salaries to be competitive with Richland and Pasco teachers.

The offers from district leaders have closed the gap, but they say they only planned on a 3.5 to 4 percent raise when they were putting together the budget.

The district’s last offer on Wednesday was 7.4 percent.

Under a previous 7.25 percent offer, nearly 300 of the district’s 1,200 teachers would make more than $100,000 and another 200 teachers would make more than $90,000, district officials said.

Superintendent Dave Bond told the Herald on Monday that any further increases could mean eliminating staff positions, delaying curriculum updates and cutting the budget for paper, supplies, desks and other materials.

Earlier this spring, the district cut 14 teacher positions and hours for paraeducators, custodians and secretaries. Officials said no employees were laid off.

But officials with the Kennewick Education Association and the Washington Education Association maintain that the district has the money available for the raises.

They said the district’s reserve fund is higher than it needs to be but did not share other details on where they believe the district could find the money.

Negotiators have remained at the table until after 10 p.m. for the past several nights, said local union president Rob Woodford.

“Teachers are not selfish people by nature, so we worry about seeming greedy,” union leaders said in Tuesday’s emailed strike update to its members. “In truth, all the KEA is asking for is to be treated as well as teachers we live among — and, in some cases, like at Delta and Tri-Tech, work alongside.”

Child care

The strike left some parents of Kennewick students scrambling to find child care.

About 200 students were dropped off at five YMCA daycare facilities organized at Canyon View, Ridge View, Lincoln, Amon Creek and Cottonwood elementary schools.

KEA Strike signs
Striking Kennewick teachers and their supporters wave signs early Tuesday morning on West Vineyard Drive near Amistad Elementary School. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

That followed a whirlwind day when the organization registered 80 students to participate in the child care, said Steve Howland, the executive director of the YMCA of The Greater Tri-Cities. They are prepared to offer the care while the strike continues.

“Things are off to a smooth start for us,” he said. “Attendance is what we were expecting.”

The organization normally provides child care before and after classes for students at 14 schools during the year, and summer camp at four schools during the summer, which wrapped up last week.

Teacher strike walk
Striking Kennewick teachers and their supporters walk on West Vineyard Drive early Tuesday morning near Amistad Elementary School. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

People looking to sign up are going to need to do it in advance, since the daycare needs proof that the child has the proper immunizations. They opened registration for the rest of August and are working on plans if the strike extends into next week.

To find out more about the program, call the YMCA of The Greater Tri-Cities at 509-374-1908.

The Tri-City Court Club is also offering an additional week of its Adventure Camp, which offers activities, crafts and field trips.

It costs $55 a day for members and $65 others, and will have spots until 40 children are there or it’s 8:30 a.m., whichever is first.

They suggested calling ahead at 509-783-5465.

How we got here

Much of the current impasse finds its roots in the Legislature’s solution to the McCleary Supreme Court decision. The fix included sweeping changes to how the the education system is funded.

Importantly for the district, it cut the amount of money they could charge in local property taxes to $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value. A move that penalized Eastern Washington districts, but left the west side of the state largely untouched.

It also changed how the state funds districts for teachers from a graduated scale to a single flat amount per teacher — $65,520.

The move benefited districts that hire starting teachers, because they can use the surplus money. But it punishes districts with more educated and experienced teachers, such as Kennewick, said Bond.

The Legislature also created a separate pot of money aimed at helping districts with a high cost of living. Richland received a temporary bump from the state that will decrease over the next six years, but allowed them to increase teacher pay.

Kennewick was a loser in all three categories, Bond said.

The change cut Kennewick’s levy money in half, the district has more experienced teachers and it didn’t get any extra cost of living money.

“The Legislature basically hosed the Kennewick teachers,” Bond said. “We care deeply about our teachers.”

As part of the McCleary decision, legislators allocated $2 billion for teacher salaries across the state.

That sent school districts into negotiations with their teachers. In the end, educators in 14 districts called for strikes — the highest number the state has seen in more than 40 years.

Pasco and Richland educators approved new contracts last year, Kennewick teachers agreed to a smaller raise as part of an agreement on the last year of their three-year contract.

This ended up with Kennewick teachers making less than teachers with the same experience in Pasco and Richland.

Vote to strike

Last Monday, after off-and-on talks this summer, the Kennewick Education Association held its August general membership meeting.

The meeting brought out 456 of the 1,200 educators in the union, said Eddie Westerman with the Washington Education Association.

When the details were given about the state of the negotiations, 85 percent of the attendees called for a strike if a tentative agreement wasn’t in place by the start of this week.

Only the elected leaders of the KEA union can call for a new strike vote, Woodford said.

Past strikes in the Tri-Cities

It’s been nearly 20 years since the last Kennewick teachers strike.

A complicated set of issues ranging from coaches salaries to transferring teachers between schools separated the union from the school administration.

At that time, 549 people of the 700 member association voted to strike. A state mediator helped hammer out their differences in a marathon session that went 16 hours.

More recently, Pasco teachers were on strike for nine days in 2015. That dispute largely focused on not having the tools necessary to meet state standards.

The district received an injunction after a judge declared the strike illegal and the union ended up paying $5,600 in fines.

The last time Pasco teachers had walked out was in 1979.