School is canceled Tuesday for many Clark County students, as teachers unions and school districts in Vancouver and Washougal failed to settle wage agreements in the final hours of bargaining before classes were scheduled to begin.
Evergreen Public Schools, Clark County’s largest district, announced early that it was canceling the first day of school in light of the Evergreen Education Association’s vote last week to walk out if a salary agreement was not reached by then.
“Given the uncertainty if an agreement is forthcoming today, and the need to let students and families know to make alternate plans, Evergreen Public Schools are not opening school tomorrow,” the district said Monday.
The district also said middle and high school athletic practices and competitions will also continue as much as possible, since coaches are covered under a separate contract.
The 3,000-plus students in the Washougal School District won’t start their school year Tuesday as planned either, as the Washougal Association of Educators and school district couldn’t come to an agreement by Monday’s 5 p.m. deadline.
Districts and unions in Clark County and across the state are in the 11th hour of negotiating new pay scales due to new school funding legislation. After allocating $7.3 billion to the state school system last year, the Legislature this year added nearly another $1 billion for teacher salaries.
“We’re in it for the long haul,” EEA President Bill Beville said during a break from Monday’s bargaining session.
Teachers also crowded an Evergreen Public Schools board meeting, but if they expected a chance to speak to Superintendent John Steach or the board, they were disappointed.
The board meeting featured only two consent agendas, and because board policy is not to take comments during special meetings, the meeting was closed for executive session within five minutes.
“Nothing for the teachers?” an audience member called out. “No answers? Nothing for the community?”
Adam Aguilera, secretary/treasurer for the EEA, led an impromptu rally of teachers and their families waiting outside the board meeting. The crowed gathered shouted, “Wage theft,” and “Steach, Steach, let us teach,” toward board members meeting in executive session down the hall.
“They made no attempt to engage with you and to listen to your concerns,” Aguilera said.
About 26,000 students attend Evergreen schools, nearly a third of Clark County’s 80,000 students.
Widespread demonstrations are expected to continue in Clark County on Wednesday, the first day of school for most school districts.
The Vancouver Education Association at 10:40 p.m. Sunday alerted Vancouver Public Schools Superintendent Steve Webb that the union would be on strike effective Wednesday if a deal is not reached. More than 100 teachers and their supporters rallied in front of district offices Monday, wearing their red union shirts and waving signs. Passers-by honked and waved as they drove down the busy street to cheers from the gathering teachers.
Rick Wilson, executive director for the district, visited the demonstrating teachers during a break from bargaining. An official decision on whether school is starting or not won’t be made until Tuesday.
“I’m hopeful,” Wilson said. “We’re going in there in good faith, but if we can’t get an agreement, then we’re not starting.”
Julie Christian, an English teacher at Columbia River High School, was among those demonstrating. She’s been with the district for seven years, and worries about the impact teachers leaving the profession could have in the long term.
“Part of it is the frustration of time and not being compensated,” she said.
Tiffany Morrisey, a seventh-grade teacher at Odyssey Middle School in Camas, also joined the demonstration in support of Vancouver teachers.
“Teachers work extremely hard, and they deserve a fair contract and a living wage,” she said. “There’s just no excuse for school districts to be giving them the runaround like this.”
Vancouver Public Schools announced a special school board meeting Tuesday, which includes a series of resolutions that would limit access to buildings, suspend payments for teachers’ health care premiums and authorize Webb to take legal action in order to prevent a strike. Evergreen Public Schools approved a similar resolution a week ago.
Battle Ground Public Schools also appears poised to strike, with teachers in that district also demonstrating Monday morning. The district announced in a news released that it had offered teachers a 16.5 percent increase in total compensation over the next three years, but said the Battle Ground Education Association did not respond to the district’s updated offer.
“We were hopeful that we could come to a mutual understanding about what funds are available to provide teachers with additional compensation,” Superintendent Mark Ross said. “Unfortunately, BGEA refused to have this discussion with the mediator and the district.”
Adam Littman contributed to this report.