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Shawn Vestal: Teachers union president explains walkout in Q-and-A

Today, 3,000 members of the Spokane Education Association will walk off the job in an effort to send a message to the Legislature that it needs to step up to its constitutional responsibility to fully fund education.

As a result, nearly 30,000 students will be participating in an involuntary walkout of their own, with instructional time to be made up some mornings and at the end of the school year. The walkout has been predictably controversial, and it has raised questions even among those who support the teachers’ aims – smaller classrooms, salary increases for teachers and a reduced focus on testing. On Tuesday, SEA President Jenny Rose talked to me about the walkout and why her members felt it was necessary.

Q: I am generally in sympathy with your views but aggravated by the inconvenience that’s been forced on families and unclear about why now is the time. What would you say to parents who might feel the same way?

Rose: The first thing I would say, of course, is I hope you can support us. We feel like this is a last attempt at trying to make sure our legislators are really looking at fully funding education. We do know our legislators are in contempt of the Supreme Court. Their job is to fully fund education and they have not done that for several years now.

It’s about the kids we serve. Who goes into education? People who have a passion for the kids, and really want to do the best for their students. Also, I think what the media has missed is we’re more than just teachers. We have 1,000 classified members, and that includes our custodians, our cooks, our secretaries, our Express (child-care) people.

Q: Is there something urgent or specific about the timing? I have a second-grader and I don’t disagree with concerns about testing. I don’t like what I see it doing to education. I also think that testing – or tying test results to teacher evaluations – is off the table this legislative session. And we’re at a point where there are different budget proposals being debated in Olympia, so there isn’t a final budget. Is there something about (today) that made it urgent to do this?

Rose: This all started organically. The SEA executive board, when we were asked if we were going to do this, we thought, “Not unless we have interest from our members.” Then, as our members were watching the West Side, they were like: “Is Spokane going to do this?” We decided to take it really slow and take a straw poll. About 1,800 members out of 3,000 gave their input, and it was very strong, very positive (in favor of holding a vote). We spent the next week actually doing the vote. Well over 2,300 members voted. Out of that, 66 percent voted yes.

As to the day, we only started this two weeks ago, so we had to give ourselves at least two weeks for the straw vote and the final vote and then to actually organize it. We didn’t want to pick today (Tuesday), because we didn’t want people to be negative. “Oh, look at them, they took a four-day weekend.” We didn’t pick a Thursday because we have collaboration (professional development) on Thursday and it’s early start for the staff for collaboration, and we didn’t want to pick a Friday because people would say, “Oh they’re just getting a three-day weekend.” And we didn’t want to go into June because we know graduations and other events would be happening. This was the only day we thought we had left.

Q: I’m wondering about the timing more in the long term. In recent years there have been much worse budgets for education in Olympia, and in that context the proposals being hashed out now are more robust. Is this really a tipping point?

Rose: For the 2,300 members who voted yes, it is a tipping point. Every year we’re told, “Oh, you’re going to get some money. Oh, it’s in the budget.” But when you look at the past, like I-728 that was supposed to lower class sizes in 2000. That went for what, two years, and then our legislators pulled back on it. Same thing with the initiative calling for cost-of-living-raises for teachers, I-732 – they funded that for three years and then that went away. I think people are just fed up. We’ve tried lobbying. Our members send thousands of emails every legislative session. We invite our legislators to come talk to us.

We had a town hall March 21 up at Rogers High School, over 800 people. We had three legislators show up, we had no media, except KHQ, even though I personally called people to invite them. Nobody’s listening to us. We need to do it now or never. It has to be now.

Q: One thing I wonder about the political reality of this is that lawmakers who are less likely to support more funding for schools already see the union as a problem. Does this walkout help you at all in terms of trying to persuade them?

Rose: To be honest, I don’t think anything would persuade them. I talked to a few on the phone, I’ve emailed a few. They’ve all had the same talking points.

I have maybe received five to 10 emails from irate parents or citizens. When I started answering them, people started answering me back, but with a softer tone. The tone just got better when they understood, so my thinking is a lot of people just don’t understand, so they work off what their perception is. If you’ve heard me talk in the media, it’s, “Please look at your schools and see what’s going on in your schools.” LC (Lewis and Clark High School) actually counted, they have 67 days in the school year in which they’re testing. Out of 180 days!

Q: In a typical labor action, strikers impose some inconvenience on the party they’re negotiating with. In this case, it really is students and families bearing the inconvenience – maybe not a huge one, but an inconvenience nevertheless.

Rose: The district approached us probably about three weeks ago – “Hey, what’s going on with these strikes?” I think my first response was, “No, this isn’t something we have in the works.” As it started building up, I sent a bunch of questions to the district. Could our Express be open all day? Could the kitchens stay open and serve meals to the kids that need a meal? This is what happened in other districts, is that teachers worked alongside their school districts.

What happened was the school board was adamant that, “No, you’re not going to do anything.” We were willing to work with the district to make this easy. The district said no. We started contacting child care centers, Boys and Girls clubs, Northeast Community Center. The Northeast Community Center is taking 50 children tomorrow. We are actually paying to help with the meals and snacks there, and I am recruiting volunteers to go up there and help them out.

We’ve tried to reach out, and people have stepped up to the plate in the community. We do want to make this as easy as possible on our parents. It’s not about our parents. It’s about their kids, though. We want the best for their kids. We want them not to have as much testing. We want them to have smaller class sizes.

The interview with Rose was condensed and edited.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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