Seattle teachers to strike on 1st day of school after contract talks break off

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Seattle teachers will strike on the first day of school Wednesday after last-minute talks over wages and other issues failed to stop them from walking the picket lines in Washington state’s largest school district.

Wednesday classes were canceled for the 53,000 students in Seattle Public Schools on what would have been the start of a new school year.

Phyllis Camapno, the union’s vice president, said Tuesday that the district came back with a proposal the union “couldn’t take seriously,” and they decided to end negotiations for the night.

Seattle Education Association members, which represent about 5,000 teachers and support staff, plan to picket Wednesday morning at all schools. The union voted to walk out last week if a tentative agreement wasn’t sealed by the first day of school.

"Nobody really wants to strike, but at this point the school board has not come to the table with a serious proposal to get it done," Campano said.

Both sides still remain far apart on certain issues, including pay raises, teacher evaluations and the length of the school day. The district earlier offered an pay increase of nearly 9 percent over three years. The union countered with a 10.5 percent increase over two years, Campano said. But she said the district barely budged from its previous proposal.

The Seattle Times reports that shortly before midnight on Monday, the district countered a $172 million union proposal with a $62 million offer that included wage increases, staff increases for special education and 30 minutes of additional instruction time in the third year of the deal.

Both sides swapped offers once more before the union decided to strike.

Stacy Howard, a spokeswoman for the district, confirmed on Tuesday night that classes were in fact canceled on Wednesday. The district was working to notify the parents and would release a statement later, she said.

Meanwhile, the school board voted Tuesday night to authorize district legal action against striking teachers.

“The District considers a strike or the concerted refusal to provide contract for services to be unlawful,” according to the board’s action report obtained by the Seattle Times. “Such action causes irreparable harm and disrupts the education program of the District, students, families and others.”

In addition to seeking legal action against teachers and other school workers, the board could limit teachers’ access to school buildings and suspend the use of sick leave for striking employees, according to the action report.

Seattle parents were left scrambling to come up with options ahead of the decision. The city parks department was expanding before-and-after-school care programs into all-day offerings because of the strike, and come community centers were also opening their doors.

Teachers in nearby Pasco are also in the middle of a strike. They voted not to return to the classroom despite a court order to end a strike. Pasco teachers decided on Monday night to remain on strike, idling 17,000 students on Tuesday in a dispute over pay and curriculum. Classes were canceled for another day Wednesday.

The strikes come at a unique for Washington state as officials are under pressure to increase spending on K-12 education. The state is being sanctioned $100,000 a day by the state Supreme Court because the justices say lawmakers have failed to adequately pay to educate the state’s 1 million school children. The court has said the money is to be put in a separate fund for education.

Lawmakers have allocated billions of dollars toward public schools, but critics say that's not enough to meet the requirements in the state Constitution that education be the Legislature's "paramount duty."

The Washington Supreme Court decided in 2012 that state funding for education is not adequate. The justices said the state was relying too much on local dollars to make up for an inadequate state budget for education. Overreliance on local dollars makes the inequity worse because school districts with higher property values can raise more money more easily.

Rich Wood, a spokesman for the Washington Education Association, said the strikes were mainly about local issues not tied to the larger state debate about funding.

"The negotiations are about meeting the needs of students in school districts," Wood said. He noted that teacher strikes are relatively rare in Washington, with the last major one in 2011 in Tacoma. The state has 295 school districts.

Click for more from the Seattle Times.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.