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Teachers might not show up on first day of school in this Pierce County district

By Shea Johnson (Tacoma) News Tribune

TACOMA – One of the smallest school districts in Pierce County might be missing its teachers when students are called back from summer vacation Wednesday.

Roughly 110 union-represented educators, including staff, plan not to show up for classes in Eatonville if a bargaining agreement is not reached with the district Tuesday after a series of failed negotiations since June, putting the first day in jeopardy for the district’s 1,800-plus students.

The Eatonville Education Association voted Aug. 30 to authorize a strike, concerned about class size, contract length, pay, staffing and workload, according to Brooke Mattox-Ball, a spokesperson for the Washington Education Association, and Michael Sniezak, the Eatonville union’s president.

“The last thing we want is a work stoppage,” Sniezak said in a phone interview. “We want to be with our kids.”

Thus far, a resolution has been elusive. Two bargaining sessions following the strike vote did not bring the two sides closer together, according to Sniezak. A meeting Tuesday, he said, represents an “11th hour” attempt to come to terms on a contract before Eatonville students are slated to return to school.

Sniezak said, while scheduling was in the district’s hands, the union was willing to continue talks after the planned work stoppage, even if it meant meeting into the early morning hours.

“The District continues to bargain in good faith with the Eatonville Education Association,” district Human Resources coordinator KaLinda Lewis said in an emailed response to a request for an interview. “Our top priority at this time is to reach agreement with the teachers’ union so we can open school on time.”

Lewis said the district looked forward to meeting with the union again Tuesday.

Eatonville, a rural town about 31 miles southeast of Tacoma, has five schools, including a high school, Sniezak said. There were an estimated 2,800 people living in the town as of the 2020 U.S. Census.

The looming work stoppage comes as teachers in Seattle appear to be on the verge of striking and as teachers in Kent have been on strike for more than a week, according to several media reports.

The labor quarrel in Eatonville is believed to be the lone such dispute among school districts in Pierce County, according to Sniezak and Mattox-Ball.

Sniezak, who teaches electives at Eatonville Middle School, said members wanted stronger assurances that a cap on classroom sizes would be honored; a three-year contract instead of the one-year deal offered by the district; and the full 5.5% cost-of-living adjustment provided by the state to public educators.

Sniezak said bargaining has been a “painful process” for union members who “really mentally wrestle” with the prospect of going on strike, but he said the terms they seek are necessary to retain and attract quality teaching staff.

“It’s just unfortunate because, at the end of the day, the teachers just don’t feel valued,” he said.

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