99% vote to end Kennewick teacher strike. School starts Tuesday

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.

Kennewick teachers voted Friday to accept a two-year contract offer that would end a strike that has kept classrooms closed this week and extended the summer vacation for 19,000 students.

The contract vote passed with nearly 99.5 percent approval.

“I’m so ready to work,” said Matt Yeager, a teacher at Fuerza Elementary School on 10th Avenue in Kennewick.

Classes start Tuesday even though the Kennewick School Board won’t vote on the contract until Wednesday.

Teachers, who began voting on the offer around 12:30 p.m. Friday, lined up to ask their bargaining team about contract details just before casting their paper ballot.

The Kennewick Education Association, the bargaining group for the district’s 1,200 teachers, reached a tentative two-year deal with the school district Thursday evening.

An estimated 1,000 teachers and other professionals showed up Friday morning to review the proposal at South Hills Church in Kennewick before voting on the offer.

Coco Mayo-Shjerven, left, and Bradley Barwell help count votes Friday at South Hills Church to end the Kennewick teacher strike. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

Several teachers who spoke with the Herald outside the meeting were encouraged by the deal.

Teachers got concessions from the district about insurance, student discipline and classroom attendance caps as part of the strike, said head negotiator Valerie Swanger.

Overall the agreement changed the pay scale in two ways.

Teachers now will reach the top end of the scale in 18 years if they have a master’s degree.

It also combines different levels of education. So if teachers have a bachelor’s degree plus 90 college credits, they will be paid the same amount as a teacher who earned a master’s degree.

In many ways, the pay scale mirrors one offered by the district late Tuesday night. The highest percentage of teachers, who are at the top end of the scale, will make more than similar teachers in Pasco or Richland.

The second largest group of teachers, those just starting their careers, will make the same as similar teachers in Pasco.

In general, teachers will get raises that range from 6.9 to 7.7 percent, according to initial information released Friday.

Krysta Beach, left, turns in her vote to Rhona Maclellan during a union meeting at South Hills Church in Kennewick on Friday. The union voted to accept a two-year contract offer that would end the strike/ Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

The school year was to start Tuesday for students. Officials said Friday that students and teachers will need to make up three of the four days missed this week because of the strike.

Time to rebuild

After getting news about the vote, the Kennewick School District broke its silence about the decision in an email to parents and other community members.

“These past few days have been very challenging for our Kennewick staff and community. We recognize that this has been a time of uncertainty and stress, and we know emotions ran high,” Superintendent Dave Bond said in the statement.

“Now that an agreement has been reached, KSD and KEA are committed to rebuilding relationships and trust with one another and our community.”

Administrators and the school board care about teachers, families and the community, Bond said.

The sides took a series of swipes at each other just hours before a tentative agreement was reached. The district filed an injunction, asking a judge to order teachers back to work.

In response, the association struck back with a complaint to the Public Employment Relations Commission claiming the district was negotiating in bad faith and had snooped on the lead negotiator’s computer.

As part of the agreement that ended the strike, both sides agreed to drop their complaints.

“We pledge to employ a world-class staff and operate in a fiscally sound, customer-focused manner,” Bond said. “We take this pledge seriously. ... We are grateful for the continued support from the community for our district schools, teachers and staff.”

On the union side, Swanger said the teachers are excited to get back to school.

“We’re ready to teach. We’re teachers. We want to be in the schools with our kids,” she said. “I’m excited to finally be a teacher. For the last month, I’ve been a negotiator.”

Lengthy negotiations

A state mediator has been taking proposals back and forth between the sides for nine days. Most sessions have lasted late into the evening.

The union and district had been bargaining off and on all summer, and the mediator arrived Aug. 21 to help after talks on a three-year contract stalled.

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

Pay was one of the main sticking points dividing the two sides. Teachers wanted their salaries to be competitive with neighboring districts.

“We are extremely relieved,” Rob Woodford, teachers union president, said Thursday night when the tentative deal was announced.

“We are very excited to get back into the classroom, and we have the community and the teachers of Kennewick to thank for the opportunity to go back and do what we do best.”

The teachers canceled a rally planned for 8 a.m. Friday at the district office.

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

Swanger, a fourth-grade teacher at Amistad Elementary, was looking forward to getting some sleep after more than a week when most days started at 8 a.m. and ended after 10 p.m.

“We’re grateful for our mediator coming in and helping us communicate things with our district,” she said. “The mediator definitely helped see each other, where we’re coming from, each side.”

How the deal was reached

The deal was struck about 5:30 p.m. Thursday after the district asked union negotiators to take the latest proposal to members for a vote and also asked a court to declare the strike illegal and order the employees back to work. A hearing was yet to be set on the issue.

The union countered by filing the unfair labor claim.

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Kennewick Education Association contract negotiation material. Cameron Probert Tri-City Herald

In the district’s 140-page request for an injunction, the district claimed the strike was interfering with the “primary responsibility and obligation of insuring the opportunity of all district students to attain their educational objectives.”

The education association responded with a complaint to the state Public Employment Relations Commission claiming the district was involved in unfair labor practices, including an accusation that district technology employees accessed the lead bargainer’s computer remotely on Sunday.

While union leaders didn’t see any files opened or copied, they said it was the only computer accessed in that manner, even though five others were in the same room.

The union also claimed the district was offering proposals that backtracked on previous agreements.

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.