Tacoma teachers' strike continues; district brings in rarely-used arbitrator option

TACOMA, Wash. — After weeks of high-tension teacher negotiations in the South Sound, Puyallup teachers reached an agreement over the weekend and school will start for those students Monday.

But there’s still no resolution in the Tacoma, Tumwater, and Centralia districts.

Tacoma Public Schools told parents Saturday night school would be canceled Monday for the third day.

Both sides are frustrated. They’ve tried to come to a resolution, discussing for nine days with a mediator. But with no resolution, now the district is trying a rarely used option – an arbitrator from the state to present a solution.

“The association is very disappointed the district chose to postpone any sort of negotiations. They've chosen to keep teachers out of schools,” said Angel Morton, president of Tacoma Education Association.

She said teachers will rally outside the central office in strike lines at 8 a.m. Monday. According to the union’s Facebook page, a band will be playing outside the office at 10 a.m.

“In front of central admin, because it seems like they need to understand they're blocking the money,” Morton said.

The disagreement is over teacher salary increases.

The two parties are struggling to close a large discrepancy of what the district says it can afford and what the union says Tacoma Public Schools can afford.

“School will go back into session once the district decides to quit blocking the money that they have that's supposed to be going to salaries for educators,” Morton said.

Tacoma Public Schools spokesperson Dan Voelpel also sounded frustrated Friday.

“We believe the Washington Education Association has inserted itself into our local negotiations and is fueling fire with misinformation,” Voelpel said.

He has said although Tacoma Public Schools will receive $50 million from the state, the new funding formula cut its levy by $46 million so their budget basically ended up a wash.

“There's no earthly reason we would want to withhold teacher salary increases from our teachers. We wish we could increase our teacher's salaries equal to what we're seeing in other districts that are more flush with funding from the state,” Voelpel said.

When using an arbitrator, each side presents its facts, then the arbitrator recommends a non-binding decision.

“Hopefully, that will bring to light the facts that Tacoma Public Schools was treated unfairly by the new state funding formula and did not receive the windfall of cash that many of the other school districts did,” Voelpel said.

“Then we would at least have a factual basis to move forward with negotiations,” he said.

The union said Sunday night that the process only slows negotiations and keeps kids out of school.

“They’ve asked for a fact-finding process so that we can go over the facts we’ve already gone over since May 14,” Morton said. “This seems like a stall tactic. My educators want to get back into the schools, they want to get back with the kids, and the district is prolonging this process,” she said.

The school district’s response?

“There would be no motivation to delay anything. We want to get the kids back in school. It’s not the district that went on strike, it’s the Tacoma Education Association that went on strike. We’re doing everything possible to bring an end to this as quickly as possible,” Voelpel said.

The union said the state has recommended both sides continue negotiations as they start the fact-finding process. The union said it will be at the bargaining table Monday at noon. The school district said there will be discussions to decide whether it will also be sitting at the table Monday.