Washougal teachers walk

First days of school postponed as educators strike for salary increases, lower class sizes

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Washougal High School teachers walk the picket line after the teachers union and district failed to reach a tentative collective bargaining agreement before the scheduled start of the school year, Tuesday, Aug. 28.

Updated Aug. 30 to reflect latest school closures.

Washougal teachers took to the picket lines this week, postponing the start of the 2018-19 school year by at least two days.

The teachers went on strike Tuesday, Aug. 28, after teachers union and school district negotiators failed to find common ground on salary and class sizes during a 14-hour negotiation session held Monday, Aug. 27.

The district intends to allow athletics and activities, covered under a different union contract, to continue as scheduled.

Schools were to remained closed Thursday and Friday, Aug. 30-31, but district leaders said they remain hopeful the 2018-19 school year will start after the Labor Day weekend on Tuesday, Sept. 4.

“We remain committed to working with the (teachers union) to reach an agreement so that we can all get back to serving the children in our community,” Washougal School District Superintendent Mary Templeton said in a press release sent to media Wednesday, Aug. 29. “We believe our proposal supports our well-deserving teachers, is fair and equitable and is something the Washougal community can sustain over time.”

On Tuesday morning, Washougal High School drama teacher Kelly Gregersen held a sign that read “fair contract now” outside the high school. Gregersen said he loves his job and hoped Tuesday would be the first and last day of the teachers strike.

Washougal Association of Educators (WAE) President Eric Engebretson said the bargaining teams made a little progress during the marathon Aug. 27 negotiation session, and that the district offered a 0.44-percent increase earlier in the day, which would bring their overall offer to a 16-percent teacher salary increase. However, Engebretson added, the new offer would take money offered to teachers in a different form and put it into salary schedules instead.

The teams met until after 11 p.m., Monday, Aug. 27, and Engebretson said the district offered another proposal that moved “in the right direction.”

“It was encouraging to see, but since it was so late we didn’t really have time to digest it and look it over properly,” he said.

The Washougal teachers voted Aug. 21 to strike if their union and the district could not reach agreement by 5 p.m. Monday, Aug. 27. Engebretson said 180 out of 205 Washougal teachers represented by the union voted on the Aug. 21 motion to strike, and that the vote had a 96-percent approval rate.

Teachers took to the picket lines on Tuesday, Aug. 28, which was to have been the first day of the Washougal district’s 2018-19 school year.

“The district and the association have worked hard to reach an understanding but, unfortunately, we were not able to come to an agreement,” Templeton said. “We have been excited to offer the biggest raise Washougal teachers have ever received, which would bring our salary into competition with regional districts. We believe our proposal supports our well-deserving teachers, is fair and equitable and is something the Washougal community can sustain over time.”

While teachers marched Tuesday, the negotiating teams met again to discuss salary schedules and class sizes.

Engebretson said the union would like to lower K-3 class sizes to about 17 students.

Templeton said there is a real focus on the K-3 class sizes, but added the district is in compliance with the state standards. The Washougal standards are 25 students per class for grades K-3 and 28 students for grades four and five.

The union and district, like many in Southwest Washington, have been at odds over how the Washougal district intends to allocate money from the state legislature’s “McCleary fix,” which was to remedy a state Supreme Court decision ordering Washington legislators to fully fund K-12 schools and adequately compensate teachers.

The superintendent said all of the allocated money from the state is being used on teacher salaries.

“The state gives us $14.2 million and we’ve used every dime of that, and now we are up to $700,000 in reserves and levy money,” Templeton said.

The district and union met again Tuesday, Aug. 28 with no progress. At a standing-room-only Washougal School Board meeting held Tuesday night, Templeton removed a controversial resolution that could have allowed the superintednent to take legal action against the teachers and halt the strike.

According to a press release from the school district sent the evening before the teachers hit the picket line, if the strike lasts fewer than four days, the district should not need to change the date for Washougal High School’s graduation.

School will start on the first planned school day after the strike ends. The district will likely have to add days later in the 2018-19 school year.

“We will continue working to reach a contract which is sustainable, provides Washougal educators with competitive compensation and gets us back to the work of educating children,” Templeton said.

This is a developing story.