Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

School talks stall, board prepares for legal action in event of strike

With a strike looming and negotiators unable to craft a deal after an all-day bargaining session Wednesday, the Spokane Public Schools 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.

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 lawsuits 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, 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.

The union says one of the main sticking points 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 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.” 

Bierman said he sympathizes with Taylor.

Partially because of compensation concerns, the district commissioned a study examining district pay for the 2014-15 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.”

The starting pay for an IA 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. “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.