Thursday, September 22, 2011

Could a teacher strike happen here?

Posted By on Thu, Sep 22, 2011 at 2:12 PM

For more than week, school has been closed in Tacoma. And it’s not because of snow.

Tacoma, the third-largest school district in the state, has been plunged into a teachers’ strike. With a contract in dispute — the district and the union debating pay, class sizes, and whether seniority could be the only factor in calculating teacher transfers — 1,900 teachers refused to work. A court order had no effect, because while striking was technically illegal, there was no penalty, so the teachers struck anyway. Fortunately, after Gov. Christine Gregoire said she would step in to help negotiate last night, a tentative deal was struck.

But what about the second-largest school district in the state? What about Spokane Public Schools when it renegotiates the contract with its union next year?

Both Spokane Education Association and district administration say that a strike would be unlikely. Both praise the communication and the relationship between the two entities.

Mark Anderson, associate superintendent and the district’s contract negotiator, has been there since 1994 and says they’ve never come close to a strike. The last strike was in 1978. While there were periods of tension through the 1980s, a new approach that former Superintendent Gary Livingstone asked for, took a more collaborative tack.

Now, they don’t hire outside bargainers — something the Tacoma School district did that created controversy. “They really don’t understand the day-to-day,” Anderson explains. “It would be hard to get them up to speed on the culture of the organization.”

And they begun using a different model — instead of having a representative of administrative interests and a representative of union interests meet to hash things out, groups of five or six (a mix of different types of employees) would meet to find solutions in topic areas. While today, the district generally relies on the more traditional method of negotiation, the principles have remained.

“You’re still searching for a good solution, instead of just, ‘Here’s our position,’”  Anderson says.

Jenny Rose, the Spokane Education Association president, says it would take something major to cause a strike, such as a subjective standard for laying off teachers being adopted, or merit pay being given to specific teachers based on test scores. “It wouldn’t be about the salaries,” Rose says. Sure, occasionally the union and the district get pissed off at each other, she says. But there has been trust built up. They have a long relationship.

Yet, as budgets become tighter and tighter, tension can arise no matter how strong the relationship.

“As we continue to get cut, it makes contract talks much more difficult,” Anderson says. “When you have money, you can solve things much more quickly.”

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