An emergency meeting of the Vancouver Public Schools board of directors erupted into shouting and boos from a packed audience Tuesday.
On the table was a series of resolutions, similar to actions taken by Evergreen Public Schools last week, that would allow the district to respond to a teacher strike. But as the crowd shouted in protest of the resolutions, the board took the unusual action to move the meeting into a separate room that was open only to the media and school staff.
It was the flashpoint in a chaotic day of teacher strikes and demonstrations, as Vancouver Public Schools teachers prepare to go to the picket lines Wednesday. Battle Ground, Ridgefield and Hockinson school districts will picket at their respective campuses, while strikes continue in Evergreen and Washougal.
Vancouver announced Tuesday afternoon that the first day of school would be postponed until the strike is resolved. Battle Ground canceled school Wednesday and Thursday, as did Hockinson.
Districts and teachers in Clark County and around the state remain at odds over salary increases using new money allocated by the state. After putting $7.3 billion into the state school system last year, the Legislature this year added nearly another $1 billion to be spent on teacher salaries.
But as strikes loomed in the vacuum of contract agreements, the Vancouver school board considered six resolutions officials described as “contingencies.” They’d allow the district to file a court injunction ordering teachers back to work, lock school buildings and, most contentiously, suspend the payment of October health care premiums if strikes last until Sept. 17.
Superintendent Steve Webb said the district did not intend to do any of those things right away, but he said paying health care premiums for teachers who work less than half their scheduled days would constitute a gift of public funds.
“Friends, we don’t have a choice in this matter,” Webb told the crowd.
Board member Wendy Smith, a Heritage High School history teacher who had broad support from teachers unions in her election campaign last year, cast dissenting votes on all but one of the resolutions.
On the question of taking legal action to stop a strike, Smith said it should be the responsibility of the board to do so, not the superintendent alone.
“I believe it is irresponsible and potentially negligent for us to abdicate this authority to anyone,” Smith said. “Finally, should any injunction be filed against the Vancouver Education Association, I believe that is unwarranted at this time, counterproductive to the bargaining process and will irreparably damage the relationships between Vancouver Public Schools and (its teachers).”
At that point, the room exploded into tumultuous applause and cheers. Board President Rosemary Fryer warned the crowd that the board would move the meeting and, after protests, called for a resolution to do just that. Michelle Giovannozzi made the motion, and the board voted 3 to 1 with Smith dissenting.
“Wendy! Wendy! Wendy! Wendy!” the crowd shouted as the board cleared the room.
Webb and the school board declined to comment immediately following the meeting. Smith further declined to comment when reached by The Columbian.
Vancouver Public Schools has pointed to the McCleary legislation as a “complex and inequitable funding system,” blaming this year’s heated contract negotiations on the legislation’s new funding mechanisms and restrictions.
“The failure of elected leaders in Olympia to avoid pitting unions and districts against each other has been divisive and disruptive to many communities,” Webb said.
Still, teachers and their supporters accuse the district of withholding the additional money districts are slated to receive under the new legislation.
“I’ve been fighting this,” Christine Munson, a third-grade teacher at Chinook Elementary School, said of the new funding. “Finally we get it, we’re promised it, and all of a sudden, we have to go through this.”
Katie and Erin Scot, whose son is a Harney Elementary School third-grader, attended the meeting in support of teachers.
“I’m pretty livid right now,” Erin Scot said, arms folded and shaking her head as board members met in a separate room.
Katie Scot, frustrated in the midst of the meeting, stood, pointed to the board and shouted “Cowards!”
Katie Scot praised her son’s teacher, saying the district is lucky to have “an amazing band of teachers and staff.” She said she worries that the district won’t be able to continue recruiting the best teachers if this continues.
“I hope they strike their faces off,” she said.
Despite school closures in Vancouver, back-to-school events and athletics will continue as planned, and school offices will be accessible to families who need to register their children or otherwise visit the business offices. Teachers will not be locked from school buildings.
In Battle Ground, high school athletics will continue, and enrollment and registration will be available online. School offices will also remain open. Lunch will be served to all children ages 1 to 18 from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Maple Grove School, 610 S.W. Eaton Blvd., in Battle Ground.
Athletics will continue as planned in Ridgefield, and district offices will remain open, according to a letter home to families from Superintendent Nathan McCann.
Megan Miles, co-president of the Hockinson teachers union, said that for their first day on strike, teachers will picket at all three schools. The union and district have been bargaining late into the night this week, meeting until midnight Sunday. The bargaining session Monday ended around 2:30 a.m. Tuesday. Miles said she thought the two sides started making some progress at 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, but when the two sides reconvened later that morning, they couldn’t come to an agreement to start school on time.
“We came in (Tuesday) thinking we could hash something out,” she said. “We didn’t quite get there.”
The strike in Hockinson will last at least two days, since the district’s mediator can’t meet again until Thursday. The Public Employment Relations Commission has been slammed with requests for mediators this summer, with more than 20 districts requesting mediation.
Also complicating bargaining in Hockinson is that the two sides are working on a full contract, as opposed to a new salary schedule for teachers. They’re also working through issues with class size and the special education program.
“We have a lot of things we’re talking about, which is probably one of the reasons why we’ve been spending hours and hours and hours at the table,” Miles said. “It’s not a one-issue deal for us.”
After a day of bargaining, Alan Adams, president-elect of the Ridgefield teachers union, said the two sides still don’t have an agreement. Wednesday was the first scheduled day of classes in the district, but now it will be the first day of the teachers’ strike. Adams said that the state mediator working with Ridgefield isn’t available to meet until Saturday, making it likely that the strike will last at least the rest of this week.