Defiant teachers in Tacoma, Washington, strike for sixth day

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 20, 2011 10:03 PM
Defiant teachers in Tacoma, Washington, strike for sixth day

By Laura L. Myers

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Striking teachers in Tacoma, Washington, walked picket lines for a sixth day on Tuesday, defying a judge's back-to-work order and facing possible court sanctions as school officials canceled classes again for 28,700 students.

Contempt-of-court notices were mailed out this week to the roughly 1,900 teachers in the Tacoma School District who were found on Friday by Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff to be in violation of his no-strike order.

The letter tells teachers accused of failing to report to work to prepare for court appearances scheduled to begin next Tuesday, if the strike drags on that long.

Only about 90 teachers reported for work on Tuesday, and district officials said the 57 schools would remain closed again on Wednesday in anticipation of the strike continuing despite a new contract offer presented to the union.

Teachers from the state's third-largest public school district walked off the job September 13 after contract talks hit a stalemate over staffing policies, class size and salaries.

Labor negotiations in Tacoma began May 31, and the teachers have been without a contract since September 1.

The latest 14-hour bargaining session ended at about 2:15 a.m. local time on Tuesday, shortly after the district offered new concessions. But by mid-afternoon, teachers were prepared to continue the strike on Wednesday, union spokesman Rich Wood said.

"At this point, parties are trading proposals back and forth continually," he said, declining to discuss specifics.

The biggest obstacle to a settlement, according to the union, has been district demands to alter staffing policies so that decisions on teacher reassignments from one school to another are based on criteria other than seniority, such as performance evaluations.

The union also objected to pay cuts sought by the district and is at odds with the district over class size, which the teachers want to reduce. The district said it cannot afford to do so.

The union said the district has amassed a surplus of $40 million, while the district said it will have to spend down its reserve funds by $15.4 million this year to avoid deeper cuts in teaching positions and student programs after being forced to eliminate about 100 jobs and close two elementary schools.

In its latest proposal, the district offered to keep salaries at current levels rather than seeking cuts, district spokesman Dan Voelpel said.

The district also proposed establishing a joint panel of teachers and school officials to set new teacher evaluation standards that would be used in conjunction with seniority to make future staffing reassignments, he said.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)