Pasco teacher contract on hold after union questions language

The board room of the Pasco School District fills up ahead of Tuesday night’s board meeting. It was the board’s first meeting in a month and since a teacher strike delayed the start of school by nine days.
The board room of the Pasco School District fills up ahead of Tuesday night’s board meeting. It was the board’s first meeting in a month and since a teacher strike delayed the start of school by nine days. Tri-City Herald

Tensions are high again in the Pasco School District as the school board did not vote on a new contract with its teachers as planned, a week after a tentative deal was struck to end a two-week teacher strike.

Assistant Superintendent Sarah Thornton said the Pasco Association of Educators questioned some of the language in the final draft of the contract the district recently provided.

She requested the board call a special meeting as soon as the district and union finish the language revisions.

“This is simply an issue of drafting contract language both parties agree to,” she told the board.

Union President Greg Olson said during the meeting that he was disappointed the contract was being put off. He and the union’s bargaining team will meet Sept. 23 to go over the district-provided draft and fully identify where there are discrepancies.

He told the Herald after the meeting that there are no plans to call a general union membership meeting at this time, a step required to initiate another strike.

“I think we can work it out,” he said.

Parents, teachers and others spared no criticism toward the board during its first public meeting since before the strike started Sept. 1. Comments ranged from disappointment the board wasn’t supporting teachers and a perceived lack of accountability to angry questions about deteriorating school facilities and resignation that Pasco’s schools won’t get better.

“I’m not a home-school parent but that’s what I am looking at,” parent Tamara Wallace told the board.

The start of the school year was delayed by nine school days by the teachers strike until a new contract negotiated between the district and the Pasco Association of Educators was approved by teachers on Sept. 14.

The tentative agreement gives Pasco teachers an 8.7 percent pay raise over the next two years in addition to a 4.8 percent raise from the state. It also requires class size reductions, more planning time for teachers, additional money for classroom supplies, and a task force review of the amount of standardized testing in the district. Finally, it set strict timelines for curriculum adoption over the next two years.

Details about the contract discrepancies weren’t provided. Olson only said there appeared to be new sections and sections with language that didn’t match up with the union’s notes from contract talks. The board did approve a memorandum of understanding accompanying the agreement that ended the strike, called off all legal action and stopped a plan to freeze teacher pay.

Some comments Tuesday related directly to the contract, with one teacher saying she’s felt compelled to apologize to her students for the lack of curriculum. Another told the board it was “going to be forcing (teachers) back onto the picket line.”

But other district issues also came up. Eric Hayes, a New Horizons High School teacher, showed large photos depicting crumbling infrastructure and signs of vermin infestation at the alternative school. He asked for an accounting of the money from the 2013 bond for a new New Horizons facility.

“Don’t do this to my children anymore,” he said.

Several questioned why taxpayers should support the district’s future bonds and levies. Nathan Grimm, who said his wife is a teacher, laid blame on all the parties involved.

“A union that went on an illegal strike is as wrong as a district that didn’t listen when it was told teachers didn’t have curriculum,” Grimm said.

Board members thanked the audience for comments and acknowledged the past several weeks have been difficult and there are bridges to repair. However, they said they were limited in what they could talk about during the strike because of legal restrictions — and that they and their families were subject to personal attacks.

“I don’t think there’s anyone in this room who doesn’t want to do what’s best for kids,” said board member Steve Christensen. “We have let our emotions get between us.”

Superintendent Saundra Hill said she was going to take responsibility for district failings, adding “we have new leadership in our curriculum department and we’ve learned some things through the context of this strike.”

At the same time, the district and community members need to move past hate and anger so that things can be fixed, Hill said.

Some community members thanked the board for listening to comments, specifically during a roundtable discussion held before the regular board meeting. But even that was tempered praise.

“They were very kind and they listened to every question,” said Stephanie Post, a school librarian whose child will attend Pasco schools next year. “They might not have as been forthcoming as they could have been.”

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