Education

Status of Pasco schools, teacher contract talks unclear despite judge’s ruling

A judge ordered Friday that striking Pasco teachers return to work and that schools open Sept. 8.

Teachers union officials, who said that later in the day they may not participate in contract talks through the weekend, called for a union membership meeting to decide whether to defy that court order.

Franklin County Superior Court Judge Alex Ekstrom granted the Pasco School District’s request for a preliminary injunction against the Pasco Association of Educators to end the strike, which began Sept. 1 and district officials have said is illegal.

Ekstrom declined to specify what fines the union could face if the strike continued, instead saying he may levy sanctions if his order is disobeyed. A followup hearing is scheduled for the afternoon of Sept. 8.

District spokeswoman Leslee Caul, reading from a prepared statement at a news conference after the hearing, said the district would not have pursued a court order if the strike were not harming children, specifically those families who had to scramble to secure childcare or find food they thought their child would get from school meals.

But the district still wants a fair teacher contract. Negotiations between the district and union are expected to continue through the Labor Day weekend.

Meetings were scheduled to start at 1 p.m. Friday but were pushed back to 6 p.m.

“Ultimately, the only resolution will be found at the bargaining table,” Caul said.

Union officials, teachers and their parent and student allies, who packed Friday’s hearing, were at first crestfallen and then angry. Union president Greg Olson said that while a ruling in the district’s favor wasn’t entirely unexpected, the district “does not want to bargain; they want to use the court to bargain.”

“We have a big decision to make,” he told a crowd of hundreds from the gazebo in Volunteer Park across from the Franklin County Courthouse after the hearing.

The district argued that public employees in Washington as a rule do not have the right to strike and the harms inflicted on students and the community are real. The district’s many low-income families might not have the provision to provide for the children if the start of school is delayed while others, such as special education students, miss out on needed resources.

Moreover, people working in the private sector have an economic incentive to end a strike as soon as possible because workers aren’t paid and managers can’t provide goods and services. Pasco’s teachers, though, are still getting paid, and the district will still receive tax dollars.

“You just have this logjam,” said Clifford Foster, a Seattle-based attorney for the district.

Union attorney James Gaspar of Federal Way told the judge that, with the most recent teachers contract expiring Aug. 31, having teachers return to their classrooms leaves them at the mercy of their employer, who would have the power to make unilateral changes outside of salary, benefits and work hours. Teachers also lack the same legal recourse against the district to resolve grievances as the district does to end the strike.

“It erodes rights, eliminates protections and can make the workplace dangerous,” he said.

The district also has great leeway in setting the start of the school year, as the state only requires 180 days of instruction. The Pasco School Board unilaterally set Sept. 1 as the first day of school without the agreement of the union, which is standard practice. And a delay to the school year’s start doesn’t necessarily create irreparable harm to students, though it may be inconvenient for the district, Gaspar said.

Foster countered that the union did not object to Sept. 1 as a start date for the school year when it was presented as part of a perpetual calendar during contract negotiations earlier in the year.

Ekstrom, who temporarily halted proceedings at one point to ask Foster to speak closer to the microphone because of noise from demonstrators outside the courthouse, noted he wasn’t ruling on policy or the issues that led to the teachers strike. His role was only to decide whether the status quo should be preserved.

“It’s unfortunate that we’re here, but that’s the only comment I have,” he said.

Case law is clear, however, that strikes by public employees are illegal. Families rely on school schedules and schools play a critical role in the operation of society, Ekstrom said.

“I assume people will follow a lawful order,” he said, noting that is “the best of people.”

As teachers and their supporters gathered in Volunteer Park after the hearing, one woman shouted “we support you!” to Olson as he prepared to address the crowds. Another, referencing the court ordered start of school Tuesday, shouted “don’t send your kids, I’m not sending mine!” Others criticized the district’s past statements that they respect teachers.

“People who are valued don’t get taken to court and sued,” said Angie Manterola, who has two children enrolled in Pasco schools.

Olson focused his comments on curriculum when addressing the crowd, saying teachers are not paid to do the 30 to 40 hours of extra work needed to come up with their own curriculum and materials.

“These people have not been in the classroom,” he said of district officials. “They don’t know what you’re seeing every day, they don’t know that you struggle everyday.”

Questions from the crowd turned the conversation toward next steps, leading Olson to speak of the importance of broader change within the district, including the replacement of board members, even if its through write-in candidates. He urged people to attend Tuesday’s scheduled school board meeting. Later that day, he told the Herald that it may be a better use of the weekend to let the bargaining teams recharge rather than continue trying to hash out a contract.

The district’s latest known contract offer was on Aug. 31 for an $8.4 million package, offering a 13.8 percent raise in salaries, additional money for teacher supplies and materials and other assurances. Nearly 5 percentage points of the raise would come from state money and the rest from local dollars, though teachers would only receive all of it if voters approve a levy in February.

The union made a contract offer on Wednesday, which lacked specific budget figures but outlined specific demands: a textbook for every child using a curriculum the district claims it has approved and adopted, only state- and federally-required standardized testing, and specific caps on classroom size dictated by grade level.

When asked by a media representative why the district was “balking” at providing curriculum or more money for it during Friday’s news conference, Caul said the district wasn’t but said she didn’t have specific details about what’s been discussed in contract talks.

“How can we buy materials for teachers if they’re not her to tell us what they want?” she asked.

Caul acknowledged that there work would be needed to restore bonds after the strike. She rejected a claim that some school principals were picketing with their teachers and took exception to a comment that teachers would more easily rebuild the relationship with their direct administrator rather than those working in the district’s offices.

”I think people are forgetting that most of the people who work in here were teachers,” Caul said.

When asked whether a school board member would be available to address the issues facing the district, Caul said “We’re being as transparent as we can ... I am the spokesperson.”

The district will inform parents of school closures should the strike continue next week via a hotline at 509-416-7874, the district’s website, Twitter feed and Facebook page.

Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver

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