By Eric M. Johnson
SEATTLE (Reuters) - Seattle teachers and support staff marched in picket lines on Wednesday during what was supposed to be the first day of school, waging their first such strike in three decades after contract talks between the district and union failed.
The 5,000-member Seattle Education Association voted unanimously on Sept. 3 to strike on the first day of school for some 53,000 students in almost 100 public schools if an agreement could not be reached for a tentative contract, the union said.
The two sides remained at loggerheads over several key issues after extended talks collapsed late Tuesday, including the extent of teacher pay increases, teacher evaluations and the length of the school day.
"Our message is that we are ready to go back into the classroom as soon as we can get a fair agreement," said Mark Landreville, a chemistry teacher who waved a sign that read "ON STRIKE" as he marched around Roosevelt High School.
The strike comes after Washington's top court ruled last week that state charter schools are illegal, and, in a separate ruling last month, fined the state $100,000 per day for failing to put forward a plan to fully fund education.
It also comes as teachers in Pasco, in the southeastern part of the state, voted Monday night to continue a strike there and to defy a judge's order to go back to work, said union spokesman Rich Wood.
Seattle Public Schools offered a proposed contract that included $62 million in wage increases, staff increases for special education and 30 minutes of additional instructional time after two years, said district spokeswoman Stacy Howard. This is still far short of the $172 million in increases sought by the union, she said.
It also agreed over the weekend to a union proposal that assures 30 minutes of recess for elementary school students, Howard and Wood said.
But the Seattle Education Association said the district was insisting on extending the school day by 30 minutes without paying teachers and staff for their time, and that teachers have seen about six years without a state-funded cost-of-living pay increase, even as Seattle saw skyrocketing rents, Wood said.
As teachers began the first contract-related strike in Seattle since 1985, the city said it was extending before and after school programs at several community centers into all-day camps to help parents grapple with child care.
(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Lisa Lambert and Eric Walsh)