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By The Skanner News | The Skanner News
Published: 13 September 2011

Tacoma's Lincoln High School

TACOMA, Wash. (AP) -- To the sound of honks, hundreds of teachers in Washington state's third-largest school district picketed in front of the city's major high schools Tuesday, hours after they overwhelmingly voted to walk away from the classroom.

The strike kept 28,000 students at home.

Union officials said teachers began arriving at Lincoln High School at 6 a.m. Tuesday. The plan was to have teachers at the city's five major high schools demonstrating all day.

"It's my 39th year of teaching. I've never struck before," fourth grade teacher Robert Brown, 60, said shortly after helping assemble signs at Wilson High School. "I'd rather be in school, I'd rather not have adversarial relationship. The principal at my school is just wonderful. My relationship with him is great. It's very negative from the central office."

Brown said he voted to strike because of the district's attempts to move teachers around the district despite seniority, saying "in the view of this 60-year-old, it's age discrimination."

Eighty-seven percent of the Tacoma Education Association's total membership voted Monday evening to walk out, after weekend contract negotiations failed to result in an agreement, Wood said.

Issues in dispute include pay, class size and the way the district's teachers are transferred and reassigned.

The Tacoma School District planned to seek an immediate court injunction Tuesday to terminate the strike, which school officials contend is illegal, district spokesman Dan Voelpel said.

Superintendent Art Jarvis will revisit the decision to keep schools closed in light of whatever happens in court, Voelpel said.

"I hope the district administration is taking less time on legal action and reflecting why their teachers are so upset they would leave the students they love," said Andy Coons, Tacoma Education Association president.

Both the Washington attorney general and state judges have ruled that state public employees do not have the right to strike.

District officials have sent automated calls to parents and staff explaining their response to the strike.

Tacoma teachers have been working without a contract since school started Sept. 1. The union and district negotiated Saturday but couldn't agree on a contract proposal.

A strike vote at the end of August failed by about 28 votes. Union bylaws require approval by 80 percent of the nearly 1,900 members to authorize a strike.

Since the last strike vote was so close, the union decided to allow members with schedule conflicts to vote early. About 200 union members with after-school responsibilities like coaching voted Friday or Saturday, Wood said. This time, 1,623 of the union's 1,869 members voted to walk out, he said.

A 2006 state attorney general's opinion said state and local public employees, including teachers, have no legally protected right to strike. That opinion also noted state law lacks specific penalties for striking public employees.

During several past teacher strikes, Washington school districts have gone to court and judges have ordered teachers back to work.

In Washington, only the Seattle and Spokane school districts are larger than Tacoma.

Tacoma teachers earned an average salary of $63,793 during last school year, according to the district. They are the best-paid teachers in Pierce County and about the fifth-highest paid among the state's largest districts, behind teachers in Everett, Northshore, Seattle and Bellevue, according to state data.

The Legislature included in its state budget a 1.9 percent cut in teacher pay but left it up to school districts to figure out how to save that money. Some districts have made cuts elsewhere, some have cut teacher pay, and others have worked out compromises with their local teachers union.

The News Tribune reports that on the issue of pay, the district said Sunday it has offered teachers two options.

They could maintain the current pay schedule and sacrifice pay for one personal day, one individual optional training day and one school-wide training day. Or they could accept an effective 1.35 percent cut in the salary schedule. In exchange, teachers would be allowed to schedule 2.5 furlough days.

The district said it has also offered to keep class size maximums at the current level. The union wants to decrease class sizes, but the district says subtracting one child per class could cost the district about $1.8 million a year.

The newspaper also reported that extra-curricular athletic activities will continue as planned, even with the teachers striking. But coaches can't step on school grounds until 2:30 p.m.

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