Monday, March 1, 2021
March 1, 2021

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Vancouver Public Schools teachers vote to approve work stoppage

Battle Ground requests mediator to negotiate with teachers union

By , Columbian Staff Writer
Published:
5 Photos
Vancouver Education Association members at a meeting at Columbia River High School on Thursday. Over the weekend, union members voted overwhelmingly in favor of a work stoppage if a new teacher contract is not in place before the start of the school year.
Vancouver Education Association members at a meeting at Columbia River High School on Thursday. Over the weekend, union members voted overwhelmingly in favor of a work stoppage if a new teacher contract is not in place before the start of the school year. (Natalie Behring for the Columbian) Photo Gallery

Monday was another tense day of negotiations between school districts and teacher unions, as Vancouver teachers voted to approve a work stoppage and Battle Ground’s union expressed disappointment days away from its own strike vote.

Teachers in Vancouver Public Schools approved a potential work stoppage if a new contract is not on the table by Aug. 27.

Vancouver Education Association’s general membership meeting on Thursday drew a crowd of 400 to 500 members, and afterward the union’s bargaining team opened up an electronic vote asking members if they’d be willing to work without a new contract, according to Rick Wilson, executive director of the teachers union.

The vote ran through noon Monday, and 92.7 percent of voters authorized the bargaining team to declare a work stoppage if no new deal is in place. Unlike most other districts in the county, Vancouver teachers are bargaining for an entirely new contract, whereas most others are just working on a new salary schedule for teachers.

“I wasn’t surprised,” Wilson said. “There’s a lot of anger and frustration right now toward the district from our members.”

There were 1,234 votes returned out of the roughly 1,648 members in the union, and 1,144 were in favor of the work stoppage.

“(The bargaining team) wanted to see to see direction from (members),” Wilson said. “I think we can see loud and clear what their direction is.”

The two sides have bargaining sessions planned every day for the rest of this week and on Aug. 27.

The first day of classes is scheduled for Aug. 29.

Vancouver Public Schools issued a statement: “The district’s bargaining team is committed to bargaining around the clock if necessary to reach a fair, competitive, financially responsible and sustainable agreement with (the union) before school opens on Aug. 29.”

A letter the district sent to families Friday afternoon caused more of a divide between the sides, Wilson said. The district’s letter, signed by Superintendent Steven Webb, said “the union representing teachers, counselors and other education professionals in Vancouver Public Schools released a ballot to its members yesterday that considers the possibility of an illegal strike, or work stoppage. If (the union) leaders decide to enact a strike, it could affect the beginning of this school year, possibly causing a delay in the opening of our schools.”

“That did not sit well with my members,” Wilson said. “They felt personally affronted by that.”

Wilson said union leadership felt a need to respond to the district letter, which they did in their own letter to families sent out Sunday.

“The characterization of a strike as illegal is both disingenuous and a desperate attempt to drive a wedge between our hard-working, compassionate educators and the community we care about and serve,” the letter read.

The legality of a teachers strike is somewhat murky.

In a Jan. 31, 2006, opinion on the issue, former Attorney General Rob McKenna wrote, “In Washington, state and local public employees do not have a legally protected right to strike. No such right existed at common law, and none has been granted by statute.  State statutes presently do not impose penalties on public employees for engaging in a strike.”

While negotiations continue, union leadership is telling Vancouver teachers to prepare for the start of the school year as if it will take place on Aug. 29. Pat Nuzzo, district spokeswoman, said all athletics, teacher training and pre-school year activities will take place as scheduled.

With 23,744 students last year, Vancouver is the second-largest school district in the county and seventh-largest in Washington.

Battle Ground update

In Battle Ground, the district and union are still disagreeing a little more than a week before school is scheduled to start for more than 13,000 students.

The two sides met Sunday, and district administrators requested they start meeting with a state mediator present.

Linda Peterson, president of the Battle Ground Education Association, said the union’s bargaining team doesn’t think that’s a necessary step to take, but that it’s going to happen.

“We wanted to continue to bargain,” she said. “We have given them proposals. They’ve given us proposals. We would have preferred to continue bargaining with the district. We were disappointed.”

“We think it would be advantageous to have a neutral party come in and work with both sides to look at the numbers, as there is a disagreement between what we believe is sustainable in the budget versus what the union believes we have available to spend,” Superintendent Mark Ross said in a statement issued by the district.

Peterson said the union thinks the district is holding back on giving more money to teachers’ salaries because of an upcoming reduction in the local school levy. The union’s stance is that state money coming into the district will more than make up that difference.

According to information from the district, Battle Ground is offering an overall salary increase of 6.5 percent for the 2018-2019 school year.  That would make the average salary for a Battle Ground teacher $72,760 plus benefits. The salary range would start at $46,599 for a new teacher, and go up to $90,154 for the most experienced teachers.

There’s a time crunch now as the sides are waiting to see when a negotiator can attend a meeting. Battle Ground students are scheduled to start their school year on Aug. 29.

The union has a general membership meeting scheduled for Wednesday, at which the bargaining team will present the latest information to union members, of which there about 860 in Battle Ground. If a union member calls for a strike vote and gets a second for it, the members at the meeting will vote on it. The Battle Ground Education Association’s bylaws state that to go on strike, 66.7 percent of those attending have to vote in favor.

“The bargaining support team structure is in place,” Peterson said. “We have a strike structure in place, if the members should vote for that.”

Peterson couldn’t say for certain if there will be a vote, but she did say union members have been very engaged in the negotiating process this summer.

“There is more activity in my membership than I have seen in the 15 years I’ve been in the district,” Peterson said. “Members are informed. They are reading the bill. They are following every settlement and every local’s bargaining.”

So far, only teachers in Ridgefield have held a strike vote, in which 97.8 percent of members voted Friday to approve a strike.

Only Woodland teachers have approved a new deal, with the union voting Friday to ratify an agreement that gives them a 22.82 percent increase in base salary, which nets a roughly 12.5 increase in overall compensation from the year prior.

Districts throughout the state are negotiating new salary schedules for teachers thanks to the McCleary decision, a Supreme Court case that determined Washington was failing to fully fund basic education. As part of the decision, $7.3 billion was allocated to the state school system last year, and the Legislature added another nearly $1 billion for teacher salaries this year. The Washington Education Association is pushing its membership to ask for 15 percent raises for certified teachers, and 37 percent raises for the classified support staff represented by some teachers unions.

“This is money sent for us,” Peterson said. “We’ve worked for it. We are finally being compensated as professionals.”

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