With a strike looming and negotiators unable to craft a deal after an all-day bargaining session Wednesday, the Spokane Public School board gave the superintendent the ability to fire striking workers and bring legal action against the union.
“We’re not surprised by the resolution,” said Spokane Education Association President Jenny Rose. “Truly in my heart I think that it’s a scare tactic for our members.”
The union plans to strike on Friday if a deal isn’t reached. Negotiations weren’t expected to start again until after the school day on Thursday.
The resolution, approved in a unanimous vote late Wednesday, requires that any school employees requesting sick leave during the strike must provide a doctor’s certification of illness. If employees don’t do this, or do not perform their duties, the district may initiate “discharge procedures.” The resolution also allows for the district to bring legal suits against individual employees participating in the strike.
“This is not something that any of us ever joined the board to consider,” said board member Rocky Treppiedi. “That is to consider what to do if our employees engage in unlawful activity.”
Spokane Public Schools board President Jeffrey Bierman said the resolution is simply a precautionary move and gives the district the necessary tools to deal with a strike.
“It’s my sincere hope that we never have to actually seek the injunction,” said board member Susan Chapin.
If a deal isn’t reached today, Friday could be chaotic around Spokane schools.
Bierman said the district would not cancel schools until the union calls for a strike.
But the union could decide to strike as late as 7:30 a.m. Friday morning, Rose said. That’s only a half hour before high school classes begin.
Administrators are developing a plan to notify parents via phone, email and social media, district spokesman Kevin Morrison said. Bierman said the district will not prematurely close schools.
“There is nobody in the district that is trying to prevent people coming to work,” Bierman said.
The labor strife in the district is similar to battles in other parts of the state. Pasco school employees already are on strike and Seattle teachers are scheduled to vote on whether to strike today, according to the Seattle Times. Spokane, like many districts statewide, held a one-day strike in May to protest state funding for schools.
The union says one of the main sticking point is compensation, especially for instructional assistants and other support staff.
“The problem is I don’t make enough money to survive,” said Tami Taylor, 53, an instructional assistant for the district.
Taylor has worked for the district for nine years and has a college degree from the University of Montana. She currently works with developmentally disabled children many of whom need help performing basic tasks. She makes $13.60 an hour, she said.
“I love going to work,” she said. “I just can’t live on what I make.”
Jan Galvez is also an instructional assistant. She has worked in the district for 19 years and has a bachelor’s degree from Eastern Washington University. She echoed Taylor saying the work she does is physically and emotionally challenging but rewarding.
“We’re struggling,” Galvez said. “I owe an unbelievable amount of credit card debt.”
Bierman said he sympathizes with both Galvez and Taylor. The district is aware that some positions aren’t paid adequately.
Partially because of compensation concerns, the district commissioned a study examining district pay for the 2014-2015 school year. The study compared Spokane to 14 other districts in Washington, including Central Valley, Yakima, Kennewick and Seattle.
“I’d be upset too,” Bierman said. “Which is why I think we did the study.”
According to the study Spokane’s starting base pay is in the 90th percentile.
The report also identifies several groups within the district that were being paid below average wages.
Instructional assistants were one of those underpaid groups, Bierman said.
The starting pay for an assistant in Spokane was more than a dollar less than the average of the compared districts. At the same time the study showed other groups were being paid adequately, or even above average.
Because the union represents a diverse group of district employees it’s hard to level a single pay increase. Instead, Bierman said it’s important to target individual groups within the larger education association umbrella.
“This is the first time that we’ve been trying to say we do have some groups that need bigger adjustments than others,” he said.
On Tuesday, the union sent emails to SEA members preparing them for a potential strike.
Jeff Ennis, a 17-year veteran second grade teacher at Westview Elementary, spent Wednesday after school handing out pamphlets near Westview Elementary. He believes that teachers and support staff aren’t receiving adequate compensation. Ennis said he’s maxed out how much money he can make and hasn’t received a raise since 2008.
“None of us want to go on strike,” he said. “This isn’t what we want to do … we want the kids in school. We want to be educating them. We care about them.”
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.