Education

No court penalties yet for Pasco teachers as strike continues

Pasco teacher Gerry Brazington cheers as he sits with Virgie Robinson Elementary co-workers, from right, Heather Merlo, Denise Barrera and Cindy Morris on Tuesday during a hearing on the Pasco School District injunction at the Franklin County Courthouse. Judge Ekstrom delayed enforcing sanction on Pasco Association of Educators though teachers continue to strike. The next hearing will be on Friday.
Pasco teacher Gerry Brazington cheers as he sits with Virgie Robinson Elementary co-workers, from right, Heather Merlo, Denise Barrera and Cindy Morris on Tuesday during a hearing on the Pasco School District injunction at the Franklin County Courthouse. Judge Ekstrom delayed enforcing sanction on Pasco Association of Educators though teachers continue to strike. The next hearing will be on Friday. Tri-City Herald

More than a hundred parents, teachers and community members met Tuesday night to talk about Pasco schools as the strike entered its sixth day.

When Matthew Polk, the union’s lead negotiator in the teacher contract talks, took the microphone at Memorial Park, he said one parent had asked him if the union was going to sell out on other issues if it was offered a big enough salary raise.

“There is no way we sign a deal until we get this curriculum settled,” he said to applause.

The group, organized by Facebook group Parents for Partnership with Pasco Schools, also heard from school board candidate Aaron Richardson, who said he wants to be part of the solution to the district’s issues and bring more transparency.

And they heard from Kathleen Barton, president of the Pasco Association of Educators during the 1979 teachers strike, who announced her write-in campaign against board member Scott Lehrman.

Sept. 9 marks the sixth day of the strike. Despite the union’s attorney acknowledging during a Tuesday hearing that the ongoing strike disobeys a prior court order, Franklin County Superior Court Judge Alex Ekstrom declined to enforce penalties against the union or its leaders. Instead, he set a Friday hearing and told the union that if the strike is resolved before then, there would be no punishment.

“Time and energy here is diverted from resolving the underlying dispute and I hope that’s resolved,” the judge said.

Greg Olson, the union president, said that while penalties are always a possibility, union membership has indicated it wants better guarantees from the district in a new contract, specifically regarding curriculum.

“Sounds like we need to get back to work at the bargaining table,” he said.

Assistant Superintendent Sarah Thornton, the only district official to attend the hearing, declined comment afterward. A prepared statement from district spokeswoman Leslee Caul said nothing in Ekstrom’s original order was negotiable and the district expected its teachers to follow the law.

“Opening the doors to our schools opens the doors between us,” the district’s statement said. “No one wants this to happen but we will emerge from this stronger as a district and a community.”

The district asked Ekstrom to find the union and 10 of its leaders and bargaining team members in contempt for violating Friday’s preliminary injunction ordering teachers back to work. Clifford Foster, the Seattle-based attorney representing the district, proposed a fine of $1,400 a day against the union for each day the strike continues. Meanwhile, he also wanted Olson and his fellow union officials to pay $300 a day for their roles in the strike. All fines would be paid to the court.

James Gaspar, the union’s attorney, said another hearing is necessary before individual union officials can be fined, as to fine them automatically would preclude findings of their alleged involvement in the strike. When Ekstrom asked Gaspar if the schools remain closed and the teachers on strike, Gaspar agreed.

Ekstrom indicated that were he to begin levying fines at Friday’s hearing, the proposed $1,400 per day fine against the union was reasonable. The district’s proposed fine against individual union officials, however, was high and Ekstrom suggested a figure closer to $250.

“If you show up on Friday and this is over, everything is purged,” Ekstrom told Gaspar.

Bargaining teams for the district and union were at the table at 10 a.m. Tuesday. The district’s latest offer calls for a 10 percent salary increase using local levy dollars, $5.9 million toward curriculum adoption over the next two years, increased contributions to insurance and higher classroom supply allowances.

Caul disavowed the district has a large reserve fund to meet the teachers’ contractual demands. Much of the district’s funding must be spent according to specific rules depending on the source and what it was earmarked for.

“Our support of our teachers has never wavered and we have long agreed they should be paid what they deserve for being the professionals they are,” Caul’s statement said. “Our state lawmakers also need to follow the law and fully fund education in our state including teacher salaries.”

She commented later in the day on the Saturday decision to cancel Tuesday night’s regular school board meeting, saying “preparation for board meetings takes significant time on the part of both staff and board members. We are all focusing our energies on getting an agreement in place with the teachers’ union so we can get our students in school.”

“Also, emotions are running high right now. Name calling, screaming, threats, and personal attacks are hurtful, upsetting, disruptive, unproductive, and do nothing to bring us closer to an agreement. The contract will be settled at the bargaining table.”

Olson said after the hearing that negotiators are “getting closer, they’re moving closer,” but that the union’s continued sticking point is the lack of assurance the district will follow through on promises. In the union’s most recent contract offer, a timeline calls for the district to appoint curriculum committee members, narrow down possible textbooks and materials and have final selections approved by the board no later than March 15 for all missing curriculum in the district.

“We need that strong language that will hold them accountable,” Olson said.

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

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