LA CENTER — Contract talks got off to a slightly delayed start Tuesday in La Center as teachers gathered in a show of force in the lead-up to talks.
La Center School District teachers voted 75-1 on Thursday to strike if a new contract isn’t reached by the first day of school on Aug. 28. The two sides have been bargaining since early June.
The union and district bargaining teams had scheduled a bargaining session at 9 a.m. Tuesday at La Center High School. About 20 minutes before the session’s scheduled start, teachers dressed in red and holding signs lined the hallways of the school leading to where bargaining was set to take place.
Just before the session was set to begin, a district official came out and talked to Washington Education Association representatives, asking if the teachers could move outside. The official said they couldn’t picket inside the school.
Lynn Davidson, a liaison to the La Center union from the Washington Education Association, said the association defines picketing as “walking a line.” Since the teachers were standing in place, she didn’t consider what the teachers were doing picketing.
Regardless of what is or isn’t picketing, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in January 2018 that the Jackson County School District in Oregon couldn’t prohibit picketing on school grounds due to the First Amendment.
With the district’s negotiating team still sitting in a different part of the school, the union went to them. At about 9:15 a.m., union members lined up and silently walked into the room where district officials were waiting, circled their table and then walked outside.
The union’s bargaining team was at the end of the line, and they asked if district officials would be willing to start bargaining in that room instead. They then closed the doors.
“You forced them into meeting your bargaining team today,” Davidson told the teachers outside the high school afterward. “You’re one step closer to getting a fair contract.”
Back outside, the group discussed plans for the rest of the week and were given words of support from visitors from Ridgefield School District, Evergreen Public Schools and Longview Public Schools, all of which were on strike in the summer of 2018.
Most teacher unions in Clark County went on strike last summer after the McCleary decision led to an influx of $7.3 billion in new state funding for schools to be spread over four years, followed by another $1 billion for teacher salaries.
La Center teachers didn’t strike. Instead, teachers signed a one-year contract for the 2018-19 school year that gave them a 6.8 percent increase in total salary compensation, bumped up to 7.8 percent for those who have been employed by the district for 25 years or longer.
The La Center union and district officials remained quiet most of last summer, but said a few months into the school year that they felt the McCleary money didn’t stretch as far in the district.
La Center has an experienced staff, and the so-called “McCleary fix” gave the district a flat rate per teacher for salaries. That rate was below what many teachers were making due to their longevity in the district, meaning La Center had to pull money from elsewhere to make up the difference.
The teachers union spent most of the year studying the school budget and talking to members, who were unhappy to still be some of the lowest paid in the region, according to Denelle Eiesland, president of the La Center Education Association. She said the union conducted a poll during the 2018-19 school year in which 30 percent of teachers said that if something didn’t change in the 2019-20 school year, they’d start looking for jobs elsewhere.
No other bargaining sessions were planned after Tuesday, but Eiesland said the union would be willing to meet to ensure school can start on time.