Striking Pasco teachers face court fines, no paycheck

Attorney Tyler Hinckley makes his case against sanctions against individual board members of the Pasco Association of Educators during Friday’s hearing before Judge Alex Ekstrom in Franklin County Superior Court. Seated behind Hinckley, from left, are: union president Greg Olson, and union board members Andre Wren and Debbie Kibling.
Attorney Tyler Hinckley makes his case against sanctions against individual board members of the Pasco Association of Educators during Friday’s hearing before Judge Alex Ekstrom in Franklin County Superior Court. Seated behind Hinckley, from left, are: union president Greg Olson, and union board members Andre Wren and Debbie Kibling. Tri-City Herald

The Pasco teachers union was fined $8,000 on Friday for its continued strike against the school district, with thousands of dollars more in penalties possible and fines for individual union leaders if they don’t get teachers back to work next week.

Franklin County Superior Court Judge Alex Ekstrom ordered the Pasco Association of Educators to pay $2,000 each day the strike continues, retroactive to Sept. 8.

He also ordered daily $250 fines for union president Greg Olson and two other union officials, Andre Wren and Debbie Kibling. But their fines were stayed until a hearing Sept. 15.

The school board has scheduled a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. Monday to vote on suspending teacher pay and benefits. The district’s 21 schools, in addition to Delta High School, never opened Sept. 1 for the new school year because a new contract has not been reached.

The school district said in a news release Friday afternoon that teachers may not receive a September paycheck and could be responsible for paying for their own benefits.

They haven’t worked any days of the 2015-16 academic calendar outside supplemental days in August, the district said.

“Teachers and all of the staff affected by this strike are our friends and our neighbors,” the district’s statement said. “We miss our colleagues and students. It’s time to get back to school and so the healing process can begin in our community.”

Contract bargaining sessions will reportedly continue through the weekend. But Olson gave no indication when the strike might end. When asked what it would take to reach a new contract, he said it would take teachers having everything they need in the classroom, time to plan their lessons and fewer standardized tests to administer.

“I’m upset we can’t find a solution,” he said.

Friday’s court hearing was the third since the strike began. Ekstrom had previously granted the school district’s request to declare the strike illegal and to order teachers back to work. He initially gave the union and district some time to settle the issue before imposing any fines.

District attorney Clifford Foster argued at Friday’s hearing that there is more than enough reason to begin contempt proceedings against the union and 10 of its leaders because the strike is ongoing, disrupting operations and causing harm to students.

Foster compared the situation to that of an instructor ordering a disobedient student to get out of their seat and go to the principal’s office.

“They have not done anything to indicate they would lift a finger to obey the court’s order,” he said, adding that union leaders are hiding behind a vote of the membership.

Union attorney James Gaspar, joined by attorney Tyler Hinckley representing the individual union leaders, didn’t dispute the strike is ongoing, but they argued against any of the union leaders being held individually liable, as they are only fulfilling the will of the union membership.

“The district is trying to pit union leaders against members,” Hinckley said. “The whole purpose of this move is to influence collective bargaining.”

At the same time, the district has some responsibility for the present situation as well, Gaspar said.

“I don’t want the court to proceed with thinking the Pasco Association of Educators is a bunch of lawless people who are unprovoked in continuing this strike,” he said.

Ekstrom, however, was clearly unhappy the strike was not over. Before either side even began their arguments, he compared the case with that of the city of Pasco and marijuana retailer Lucky Leaf, which had to be shut down after Ekstrom granted the city an injunction because of its marijuana business ban.

“But it appears (Lucky Leaf) at least came to court intending to comply,” Ekstrom said. “That can’t be said of today’s defendants.”

Because of the extended strike, regional universities have begun pulling their fall student teacher placements away from the Pasco district and moving them to other districts, Pasco school officials said.

Administrators are working to arrange training days next week for the district’s classified staff unable to work because of the strike. The training will allow them to receive September pay and benefits. However, students are still not able to access school-based resources they need, such as special education programs and free and reduced-price meals.

The district said it remains ready to bargain. Its most recent contract proposal would allocate $5.9 million to curriculum adoption during the next two years.

An assessment of what curriculum the district needs would be accelerated. There would be a one-year deadline for a recommendation for language arts and math curriculum for K-8 students that is bilingual. There would also be a specified timeline for the curriculum review and adoption process for the next year.

It still proposes the district take three years to fully address all curriculum needs claimed by teachers.

The district’s latest offer also includes a 10 percent salary raise over three years and a pledge to form a task force with the union by Oct. 1 to review testing in the district.

A recommendation would be made to the board before the end of 2015.

“The district’s contract offer is fair,” said the district statement. “It addresses the concerns of PAE members while being fiscally responsible and sustainable.”

The union made a new contract offer Friday that included details as to how the district’s curriculum adoption and instructional materials committee should be comprised and what the adoption committee’s duties should be.

It also repeated deadlines for replacing missing curriculum for math, language arts and science, and follows a specific timeline so the process is completed before mid-March. Curriculum adoption for social studies and the arts would come the next school year.

The union also has requested an 11.9 percent salary increase across the next two years.

The union will continue to push for strong contract language that will hold the district to its promises on curriculum, Olson said. He will meet with the union’s legal team about possible next steps, but no general membership meeting was planned as of Friday evening.

Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402;; Twitter: @_tybeaver