A split 2-2 vote by the Kent School Board on Monday night, Aug. 29 halted a recommendation by district staff to seek a judge’s ruling to order striking teachers back to work.
Board President Leslie Hamada and Joe Bento voted against the resolution submitted by Superintendent Israel Vela and his administration to file a lawsuit against the Kent Education Association (KEA, teachers’ union) in an effort to end the strike that started Aug. 25 and has closed schools for what will be the fourth day on Tuesday.
“With a 2-2 vote nothing is done,” said Hamada about the lack of a majority on the five-member board that has one vacant position.
Board members Tim Clark and Awale Farah supported the motion at the special meeting to get the courts involved after district and union negotiators have failed to reach a contract agreement. The district has 42 schools and academies, nearly 24,000 students and about 2,000 teachers.
Hamada said rather than going through the courts she wants to the two sides to each compromise in order to get students back to school.
“Each side must meet and compromise, each side must move,” Hamada said. “I am not at the table. Each of you know that are at the table that you need to start working together. My patience is close to an end and that will be reflected in my vote.”
Bento, who is a Renton High School teacher, called for action to move forward by both negotiating teams without a judge getting involved.
“People might disagree, but bargaining needs to happen at the table,” Bento said. “This is happening in the courtroom by filing an injunction and it is an intimidation process.”
Clark said he agreed with the staff recommendation to file the lawsuit as “just trying to move the process forward.”
Clark said the strike is “painful for all of us,” and that parents must deal with their jobs and child care and other issues. He said he understands that teachers feel they are not being treated fairly.
“We need to respect the process, sit down at the bargaining table where both sides put out their needs and reach a range of compromise we all can live with,” Clark said.
Farah said he favored the lawsuit to get teachers back to work so that the district’s many students of color can get in the classroom and learn and students that need meals can get them.
“This district is more than 70% kids of color,” Farah said. “It pains me to see them home.”
Farah said as a person of color he needs to stand up for those kids in a district where more than 80% of the teachers are white.
Vela and his staff put out the following recommendation for the board to consider:
“KEA members failed to show to work as scheduled on Aug. 25 and instead orchestrated an unlawful strike,” according to district staff. “KEA is therefore in breach of contract. The continued breach will cause immediate invasion of the rights held by the district and will result in actual and substantial injury to the district, its students, and community in the absence of an injunction ordering KEA members back to work.
“The strike continues unabated despite good faith proposals from the district. For example, on Aug. 20, the district offered a 6.3% wage increase in year one, cost of living adjustments for two successive years, and $2,500 in stipends.
“Staff recommends passing Resolution No. 1630 authorizing, among other things, a lawsuit against the KEA to obtain an order directing KEA members back to work, setting appropriate fines against the KEA and its leadership for non-compliance with any such order, and requesting attorneys’ fees, costs, and any other such relief as the court deems just and equitable.”
The KEA pointed out in response to an earlier statement by Vela that the district offer addresses pay but not two other primary issues brought up by the union for increased mental health options for students and smaller class sizes and caseloads for teachers.
KEA President Tim Martin issued the following statement in response to the district’s proposal.
“We are disappointed, but unfortunately not surprised, that the district chooses to play games and spend money on attorneys rather than seriously engage with school staff on what students need,” Martin said. “We are still waiting for a proposal from the district that addresses student-centered supports and stops attacking workers’ rights.”
Martin said at issue are proposed improvements to class sizes and student services, several anti-union proposals — including contractual protections against workplace discrimination — and the district’s refusal to pay a state-funded cost-of-living pay increase.
“To our members, this is about much more than just money,” KEA Vice President Layla Jones said. “We are thinking about the classrooms that our students are in and we want those classrooms to be well resourced, and well staffed.”
Teachers last struck in Kent in 2009, which lasted nearly three weeks and delayed the start of the school year.