Seattle teachers are on strike Wednesday, which was supposed to be the first day of school. In response, the School Board voted to seek legal action to stop them.

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Seattle teachers are on strike Wednesday, the first time in 30 years they have walked out over stalled contract negotiations with the city’s school district.

And just minutes after the Seattle Education Association bargaining team made its announcement Tuesday evening, the Seattle School Board voted to authorize the superintendent to seek legal action to try to force teachers and other school employees back to work.

After the vote, Board President Sherry Carr said going to court may help truncate the length of the strike.

The union’s decision, and the district’s response, came after the two sides swapped last-minute offers and counteroffers, hoping to reach an agreement before Wednesday’s scheduled start of classes for the city’s 53,000 public-school students.

What to do with your children while Seattle teachers strike

Teachers strike Read more about the strike

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Shortly before midnight Monday, the district had offered a $62 million proposal as a counter to the $172 million union proposal, according to the district.

On Tuesday afternoon, the union presented a counteroffer, which the district said it was considering. The district then offered another proposal to the union at about 6 p.m. A half-hour later, the union announced its 5,000 members — teachers and other school employees such as nurses, instructional assistants and office secretaries — would go on strike.

“We didn’t think it was a serious proposal,” said Phyllis Campano, Seattle Education Association vice president and bargaining chair.

If the district requests legal action and a court grants it, the union will take another vote on whether to continue striking, Campano said, and continue to work toward what SEA members see as a fair contract.

“We will stay out as long as we need to get that done,” Campano said.

Teachers and other staff members will picket outside their schools starting about 8 a.m. Wednesday.

Union members voted last Thursday to strike if the two sides failed to reach an agreement, and the district encouraged parents to have child-care plans for Wednesday and beyond.

Unresolved issues

The two sides reached agreement on a number of significant issues over the weekend, including a guaranteed 30 minutes of recess for elementary students and increased pay for certified and classified substitute teachers.

Unresolved issues include pay increases and increased instructional time. The district’s latest salary offer was a 10 percent increase over two years, which includes a state-approved cost-of-living adjustment. There were no immediate details about the union’s counteroffer. Over the holiday weekend, the union had proposed a 16.8 percent increase over the same time period.

After the union announced it would strike, Campano said the district’s offer didn’t include competitive pay increases.

As the Seattle School Board recesses into executive session Tuesday, concerned parents and others at School Board chambers show their support for teachers. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)
As the Seattle School Board recesses into executive session Tuesday, concerned parents and others at School Board chambers show their support for teachers. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

In the state budget passed this spring, lawmakers boosted school funding across the state by about $1.3 billion over the next two years. Seattle Public Schools’ share of that is roughly $40 million, and the union wanted some of that to go to raises.

The district wants to lengthen the school day, which it says would help meet state requirements. Its proposal would add 30 minutes of instructional time starting in the 2017-18 school year, with the two sides meeting next year to determine how the time would be allocated.

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The union, however, says that proposal is a way to make teachers work more for free.

Both sides said they will continue bargaining, even as the strike starts.

“We are committed to continuing negotiations,” Carr, board president, said at Tuesday’s School Board meeting. She noted, however, that the failed negotiations were a “textbook case” of a broken K-12 funding system and a “deep overreliance” on local property-tax levies to fund education.

Seattle Education Association President Jonathan Knapp said he had been optimistic that the two sides would reach an agreement and was disappointed the talks had stalled.

“They (the district) don’t seem to understand the issues,” he said.

Legal actions

In addition to seeking legal action against teachers and other school employees, Nyland’s other options include closing or limiting educators’ access to school buildings, according to the board’s resolution.

But the board decided to allow the superintendent to go to court, too.

“A strike for any reason by District teachers or other personnel is harmful and damaging to the District, our students, and our community,” the board resolution said.

The vote to seek legal action was 5-1, with one abstention. The opposing vote came from Sue Peters; the abstention from Betty Patu.

The union had urged the board not to make that move, saying it would show a lack of respect for Seattle educators and students.

“It’s disappointing that the school board is grasping at legalistic straws rather than focusing on ways to provide the supports that educators need to be successful with students,” Knapp said in a statement earlier this week. “We won’t be scared into abandoning our commitment to winning a fair contract.”

Seattle City Councilmembers Kshama Sawant, Nick Licata and John Okamoto also urged the School Board to vote against considering legal action.

In a letter to the board, they said they believe that the union’s proposals are reasonable, and in the best interest of Seattle students.

“However, regardless of one’s opinions on the union’s demands, the educators’ democratic right to speak out, organize unions, and go on strike must be defended,” they wrote.

One other school district in the state has already sought — and received — a court ruling ordering its teachers back to work.

But those teachers, in the Pasco School District, voted to strike anyway. School was canceled Wednesday for the sixth day in that Franklin County district, which has 17,000 students.

In 2003, Marysville teachers went on strike for a state-record 49 days, voting to return to the classroom after a court order.

Kent teachers went on strike in 2009 for nearly three weeks before voting to accept a contract agreement. A judge ordered the 1,700 teachers to return to work a week after the strike began, and had the teachers rejected the offer, they each would have been fined $200 for each day the strike continued.

The Tacoma teachers union defied a court order in 2011 for them to return to work. School was canceled for seven days during the strike before the union and school district reached an agreement.

Seattle teachers last struck over contract issues in 1985; school was out three weeks.

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