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Donna Gordon Blankenship Associated Press Writer
Published: 15 September 2009

SEATTLE (AP) -- Teachers in Washington state's fourth-largest school district on Monday agreed to end a strike with a new contract and headed back to their classrooms to prepare for students to return to school on Tuesday.
Teachers overwhelmingly approved the contract with a 94 percent yes vote, said Kent Education Association spokesman Dale Folkerts.
The new contract reduces class sizes, increases the time teachers spend with students, limits administrative meetings and gives teachers a raise.
The district's 1,700 teachers have been on strike for 18 days, and Folkerts said teachers were excited to get back to work. The district's 26,000 students didn't start school on Aug. 31 as planned.
Parents and community members at Kentlake High School said they had been awakened to the issue of overcrowded classrooms and vowed to continue the fight, Folkerts said.
"Kent School District leaders will be forced to confront the issue of overcrowded classes now and in the future," he said. "Parents say this 18-day strike awakened them to some of the abuses happening within the Kent School District."
The district includes 40 schools. The two sides came to an agreement this weekend after a King County Superior Court judge said teachers would have to start paying fines of $200 a day each if they were not back in school Monday.
"I wasn't concerned about that. In fact, I was thinking about bringing out a check for whatever amount of money that was and hand it to the president because this was standing up for what is right," teacher Kathy Cook told KING-TV.
Judge Andrea Darvas ruled at the end of the first week that the strike was illegal and ordered teachers back to school without a contract. Teachers remained out on strike for a week beyond Darvas' order, vowing to keep pushing until they had an agreement with the district.
Kent Education Association President Lisa Brackin Johnson said the resulting contract was worth the wait, both for teachers and their students. The teachers made gains in all of their major issues: class size, time with students, workload and compensation, she said.
"The membership came together to stand for what they believe in," Johnson said. "They came together to ensure that their voice was heard."
Phone calls to the district asking for comment were not immediately returned, although Superintendent Edward Lee Vargas posted a statement on the district Web site.
"We are excited about moving forward together with our Kent Education Association partners and our entire school community. Our focus is students and their success -- they are the reason we are here."
Enthusiasm about the end of what had been the only teachers' strike in the nation was heard as far away as Olympia, where the governor and the superintendent of public instruction issued a joint statement.
"We congratulate both the Kent School District and the Kent Education Association for reaching this critical agreement. Both sides negotiated in good faith -- and kept students their No. 1 priority. It is imperative that children get back in the classroom," Gov. Chris Gregoire and Superintendent Randy Dorn wrote.

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