Pasco schools will remain closed Sept. 14 but teachers will vote that morning on a tentative agreement that could end their strike and begin bringing students back to school Sept. 15.
All elementary and middle school students are to start classes Sept. 15, as well as freshmen at Pasco, Chiawana and Delta high schools, district officials announced in a Facebook post Sunday morning.
Tenth- through 12th-graders would return to the high school Sept. 16. All New Horizons High School students are to report on Sept. 15.
Details about the tentative agreement, including its duration, were not immediately available, and the district said it would not provide them until after it is ratified by teachers. District and union officials said it was reached by negotiators about 3:30 a.m. Sunday.
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Teachers already have been granted access to school buildings where they will be able to regain access to their district-provided email, said district spokeswoman Leslee Caul.
“This has been a difficult time for everyone but we’re ready to have a great school year,” said Pasco School Board President Ryan Brault during a Sunday afternoon news conference.
Matthew Polk, lead negotiator for the Pasco Association of Educators, said he expects the union’s executive board will “heartily endorse” the agreement ahead of a general membership meeting scheduled for 10 a.m.
“I believe that our fight to improve Pasco schools has paid off,” he told the Herald.
Pasco’s 21 schools were originally scheduled to open Sept. 1. Delta High School, the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM-centered school jointly operated by the Pasco, Richland and Kennewick district, also was closed through the strike.
Union members voted in mid-August to strike if no new contract with the district was ratified by Sept. 1. The district and union were in talks throughout the summer but each side has criticized the other for not bargaining in good faith and drawing out the conflict.
Both sides sparred over various issues such as curriculum, testing, class sizes and pay.
Union officials, in their last known contract offer late last week, sought specific timelines and deadlines for the district to adopt missing curriculum. They also sought the elimination of all standardized testing not required by the state or federal governments and a nearly 12 percent salary increase over two years.
The district’s offer included a 10 percent salary raise over three years. It called for an assessment of what curriculum the district needs, a one-year deadline for a recommendation for language arts and math curriculum for K-8 students that is bilingual, and a specified timeline for the curriculum review and adoption process for the next year.
It still proposed the district take three years to fully address all curriculum needs claimed by teachers.
The district also pledged 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.
Franklin County Superior Court Judge Alex Ekstrom on Friday began fining the union $2,000 a day back to Sept. 8 for the strike continuing in defiance of a Sept. 4 court order to end it.
Three union officials, including union president Greg Olson, are also to be fined $250 a day for each day the strike continued though the penalties were stayed until another court hearing on Sept. 15.
The Pasco School Board was scheduled to vote on suspending teacher pay and benefits at a special board meeting Sept. 14. That meeting was canceled after the tentative agreement with teachers was announced.
In response to questions about how the district and union can begin to mend bridges after such contentious talks, Caul said, “There is work ahead. We look forward to that work.”
Earlier in the day, Polk told the Herald that Brault, who is up for re-election this November, owes all Pasco residents an apology and he hopes not to hear from him again “until I hear his concession speech at the upcoming election.”
“The sad and sorry policies of Ryan Brault and (Superintendent) Saundra Hill have been defeated,” he said.
When asked why the school board had remained generally silent throughout the strike and contract talks, Brault said that he and the rest of the board received frequent updates and gave input throughout the process but they weren’t at the bargaining table.
“Most of the questions I’m going to be asked I can’t answer,” he said.