Ridgefield schools will be closed Friday, marking the sixth day of a teacher strike amid stalled contract negotiations between the district and the Ridgefield Education Association. Schools have been closed since Sept. 9.
Thursday’s bargaining session began at 10:30 a.m. and was set to continue until a tentative deal was reached or the two sides felt they were at a stalemate. Since this past weekend, the sides have been joined by a state mediator from the Public Employees Relation Commission.
Tensions between the two sides have increased this week, with union leadership leading a rally outside the district office on Tuesday and then announcing a vote of no confidence in top district administrators on Wednesday afternoon.
“The district’s dysfunctional student intervention program is not working for students or educators,” the union said in a press release. “Interventions should be driven by identified student need. The district continues to resist efforts to ensure better outcomes for students. We need to utilize teachers’ professional judgment to provide supports, interventions and enrichment.”
The district responded shortly after with details on exactly what’s being offered on the table in terms of salary increases and changes made to base pay, which can be found at https://www.ridgefieldsd.org/article/839215. The district’s most recent packaged contract proposal can be found on their bargaining updates page at https://www.ridgefieldsd.org/page/bargaining-update.
“The district will continue to bargain in good faith with the REA and collaborate as negotiations continue with the goal of reaching a mutually acceptable contract agreement,” the district’s release read.
According to union representatives, the district’s focus on salary is contributing to misconception of what they have continued to assert their main priority to be: special education.
“We believe in fair compensation, but really it’s about working conditions that allow us as professional to do the best work for our students,” said Douglas TenEyck, a union member and special educator in the district.
TenEyck said a recent change in the instruction and organization of special education students, a process he refers to as “mainstreaming,” is putting strain on educators despite its good intentions.
“There’s been a movement to move those children with special needs who were in isolated classrooms to general education classrooms not only to make friends with their peers but to engage with curriculum at their grade level,” he said. “It’s a fantastic idea in its philosophy, but the breakdown is in the logistical implementation of that model. We need to be able to execute. You need to be creative with your resources and just have enough manpower to pull it off.”
As the model’s implementation without adequate staffing overwhelms teachers, TenEyck said, they’ve faced more and more issues in retaining staff.
“Our special ed programs are stronger when you have veteran teachers who stick around. I’ve been running my program for 16 years,” he said. “I feel it’s a very strong program. But the program flounders when you have high turnover and new teachers every year. It never has the footing to be developed into a cohesive program. We’re trying to fix a broken system.”
Though the district maintains that they have paraeducator vacancies posted online, TenEyck and other union members have said adjustments need to be made so that they are competitive enough to retain staff for more than a year or so.
“They can say our offer is similar to Vancouver and Evergreen. Well, it’s a problem over there too,” TenEyck said. “It’s a systematic issue. Sure, it’s expensive to serve our special education students, but everyone deserves a right to a fair education. It’s the law.”
A deal had not yet been reached as of Thursday afternoon. As the strike continues, schools will remain closed and meal services will be suspended. Middle and high school athletics will continue as scheduled. Students who attend Cascadia Tech Academy will attend their classes as scheduled, and will be able to take the bus to and from school at their usual location.
Union members are continuing to provide free sack lunches to all Ridgefield students between noon and 2 p.m. at the United Methodist Church in Ridgefield.
The district’s Family Resource Center — which provides food, clothing, personal care items, school supplies and more — also continues to be open during the strike. The Center is located at 330 N 5th Ave in portables C and D between the district office and Union Ridge Elementary School.