In a 2-2 vote, the Kent School Board deadlocked Monday on a measure to request a court injunction to force its striking teachers back to work.
The board was weighing an injunction in an effort to end three days of picketing. But board member Joseph Bento called it an intimidation tactic, and said it would be manipulative to bring this issue into the courts.
Board member Awale Farah, who voted in favor of the injunction, said he did so to stand up for the families of color who do not understand the bargaining process.
“It’s not a decision that I made lightly,” he said. “I’m going to be losing a lot of friends but I can … look at myself in the mirror with this decision.”
After the vote, teachers who had crowded into the board chambers cheered. With no injunction in the works and no contract, the two sides will continue to negotiate. There is no school on Tuesday.
Kent educators went on strike Aug. 25, on what would have been the first day of school in the district, and continued to picket in front of schools Monday. Kent Education Association members say they want more pay to keep staffing positions competitive with neighboring school districts, and a manageable caseload for staff working with English learners and students in special education.
The district calls the strike “unlawful” and a breach of contract. “The continued breach will cause immediate invasion of the rights held by the District and will result in actual and substantial injury to the District, its students, and community in the absence of an injunction ordering KEA members back to work,” the district wrote in the proposed resolution that would have authorized the lawsuit against KEA.
One of the School Board’s seats is vacant, so there was no fifth member to break the tie.
Kent officials have offered a 6.3% salary increase for first-year teachers, bumping the base salary up to about $65,000. The offer also includes a $1,000 stipend for every union member.
Under the district’s proposal, three-quarters of union members would earn at least $77,000 a year.
The union, which has about 1,700 members, said the proposal focuses only on pay, while the union is also concerned about class size, caseload and mental health.
“To our members, this is about much more than just money,” said KEA Vice President Layla Jones in a statement. “We are thinking about the classrooms that our students are in and we want those classrooms to be well resourced, and well staffed.”
Litigation will cost taxpayers about $50,000, according to district estimates.
“We are disappointed, but unfortunately not surprised, that the district chooses to play games and spend money on attorneys rather than seriously engage with school staff on what students need,” said Tim Martin, union president, in a statement. “We are still waiting for a proposal from the district that addresses student-centered supports and stops attacking workers’ rights.”
April Thousand, a chemistry teacher at Kent-Meridian High School, said that though pay is an issue, the larger issue is the need for more mental health support for students. This past school year, she said, neither she nor her students had enough support.
“Last year was really difficult with everyone being so far behind,” Thousand said. “I support my students as much as I can, and they confide in me, but they need professional services. It’s so frustrating.”
In 2021-22, there was one therapist at Kent-Meridian and appointments filled up fast, Thousand said. Kent-Meridian is a high-poverty school and there are many refugee and immigrant students who get mental health support from the school.
“Some kids were desperate to hook up with mental health services,” Thousand said. Thousand had a student who was from Albania, and whose family didn’t believe in mental health services, so the student couldn’t talk to her family about her needs.
Despite the child care hardships that the delay of the new school year has caused for families, the union has received support from parents.
“I am in full support of the teachers and the other labor partners bargaining right now,” said Kari Reifel, a parent with two children at Glenridge Elementary School. “Most of the schools are excellent and staff are excellent but do not have the support of administrators and not enough staff are hired. We’re competing with districts 15 minutes away that pay more money.”
Reifel said this past year there was a student being disruptive in her child’s classroom. The teacher had to stop the class to handle that situation.
“That’s a concern because that child is not getting the support they need and my child is missing out on learning because [the teacher] had to leave the classroom,” Reifel said.
Jessica Kessler and Christy Stanton have children at Lake Youngs Elementary School and are helping make meals for children to pick up while the strike continues. Both attended the rally Monday night and said the district should be doing more to make sure students are fed.
“This week kids came by the school looking for food,” Kessler said. “It was obvious they haven’t eaten.”
Reifel noted that litigation is going to cause a larger divide between administrators and KEA. And Thousand echoed that idea.
“What teacher is going to be attracted to Kent with this salary and school board tactics they are using?” she asked “I’m afraid it’s not attracting new talent.”
Kent educators last went on strike in 2009. The strike lasted 15 days, and to end it, the school district sought an injunction to force teachers back to work. A King County Superior Court judge ruled the union would be fined $1,500 a day and teachers would be fined $200 a day if the strike continued. On Sept. 14, 2009, teachers voted overwhelmingly to accept a tentative contract agreement, avoiding the fines.