Update: District wants injunction to end strike. Union files state complaint

Striking Kennewick teachers start community food drive

Park Middle School teacher Crystal Green tells about a community food drive started by the striking Kennewick Education Association members at their rally locations.
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Park Middle School teacher Crystal Green tells about a community food drive started by the striking Kennewick Education Association members at their rally locations.

The Kennewick teacher’s strike turned more contentious Thursday as administrators and union officials traded legal blows.

The Kennewick School District filed an injunction in Benton County Superior Court with the hope of a judge ordering teachers back to work. They’ve been on strike since Tuesday.

The Kennewick Education Association responded with a complaint to the Public Employment Relations Commission claiming the district was involved in unfair labor practices, including snooping on the head negotiator’s computer.

The issues between the sides cranked up this afternoon even as negotiators returned to the bargaining table Thursday hoping to come to an agreement before the long Labor Day holiday weekend.

District administrators traded proposals with the union’s bargaining team behind closed doors even as the district attorney Bronson Brown filed a 140-page injunction.

The document claimes the strike is interfering with the district’s “primary responsibility and obligation of insuring the opportunity of all district students to attain their educational objectives.”

The injunction’s wording is taken directly from a similar court order filed against Pasco teachers when they struck in 2015.

It even mentions the former Pasco Association of Educator’s president rather than current Kennewick Education Association President Rob Woodford.

The court order ended up costing the Pasco teachers union $5,600, after Judge Alex Ekstrom levied a $2,000 a day fine against the union.

Right now there is no scheduled hearing for the Kennewick injunction.

Union officials shot back with a complaint that the district engaged six unfair labor practices during the negotiations.

This includes an accusation that district’s technology personnel accessed the lead bargainer’s computer remotely on Sunday without any prior notice, said Kennewick Education Association Attorney James Gasper.

“In fact, this invasion occurred while the KEA bargaining team was convening in their caucus room at the district’s administration offices on a Sunday,” he said.

While they didn’t see any file accessed, they said it was only computer accessed like this even though five others were also in the same room.

The district’s newest three-year contract proposal mirrored the Pasco School District for salaries for a teacher’s first 15 years on the pay scale. It then follows the Richland School District’s salary scale for two years, and finally exceeds salaries of the other two districts.

This is the 23rd offer on pay from district leaders and isn’t the first proposal to have some Kennewick teachers exceed the pay level of some teachers in Richland and Pasco.

This pay proposal would also accelerate by one year how fast Kennewick teachers reach the top level of pay, from 19 years to 18.

Day3 KEA teacher strike
Striking Kennewick teachers and supporters wave to a honking motorist Thursday morning while picketing across the street from Park Middle School on West 10th Avenue in Kennewick. Watch a video: Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Pay has been one of the key issues dividing teachers and district administrators since they began negotiating in May. Teachers want to be paid on the same level as their counterparts in Pasco and Richland.

Administrators have called those comparisons unfair because the neighboring districts have different financial sources and funding models. Richland received extra state funding to help balance out a higher cost of living in that district. And Pasco has fewer teachers at the top end of the pay scale, even though they .

Some people have been commenting on social media that there is more involved in the negotiations than pay, but the salary schedule proposals are the only new items posted on the district’s website since the sides went into mediation last week.

A school board policy requires all Kennewick school leaders to make “all documents exchanged between the parties involved in the negotiations — both district and labor union — be made immediately available to the public via a website maintained by the district.”

Take it to a vote

Kennewick school board members stepped in to the fray on Thursday.

This came after the union returned with a proposal that all Kennewick teachers receive 0.5 percent more than similar teachers in Pasco and Richland.

“This would cost the district $537,853 more,” according to a release from the district. “The Kennewick School District rejected this offer.”

In an afternoon message from the district, the school board called on the Kennewick Education Association to take the district’s latest proposal back to teachers for a vote. It’s not clear who was involved with the call.

The association has not responded to the board’s statement. .

Getting back to class

It still remains uncertain whether kids will get to go to class this week, but spirits remained high among teachers Thursday morning as they started their third day of protests.

Even if teachers and administrators reach an agreement Thursday, teachers would need to meet to review the proposal before calling off the strike. It could take a few hours to discuss what is included in the offer, said Kennewick Education Association President Rob Woodford.

Union leaders want to keep negotiations at the bargaining table and not in public, so they have refrained from commenting on the progress of negotiations.

Kennewick administrators also have not given any indication of whether they think the issue will be settled this week.

Day3 KEA stirke food drive
Striking Kennewick teachers from Park Middle School collect donations for a community food drive Thursday at their rally location on West 10th Avenue in Kennewick. Watch a video: Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Food drive for community

Teachers wanted to do more than just stand on picket lines Thursday, so they began collecting food for local food banks.

“We’re trying to help out the community while we’re out picketing,” said Woodford.

The people at the picket line are getting a lot of support, he said, adding that parents and teachers share a desire for children to succeed. He is hoping the energy that has brought them together on the picket lines will encourage more parents to get involved in schools.

Photos show truck and van loads of food ready to be delivered.

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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.