Hours after a Thurston County Superior Court Judge told striking Tumwater teachers to go back to work, the teachers voted to stay on the picket line.
In response, Tumwater School District officials issued notice that teachers should report to work Thursday, and students should expect to begin classes on Friday.
“While there is nothing we’d like more than to end this strike and be back where we are most comfortable, after a lot of individual reflection and group discussion, we’re not giving up on our students, our community and ourselves,” Tumwater Education Association President Tim Voie said in a news release Wednesday afternoon.
“We will go back to school when the district is ready to give us a fair and reasonable contract that will attract and retain great teachers and keep our students safe,” he said.
Teachers said they do not want to defy the judge’s injunction, according to the release, but added “they have little other choice since the district is bent on settling this in court rather than at the bargaining table where they are refusing to budge.
“We will be back on the picket lines tomorrow (Thursday) and the day after and so on until our bargaining team tells us they have reached a fair and reasonable agreement,” Voie said.
Meanwhile, the district notified the union Wednesday that the first scheduled work day for teachers is Thursday and the first scheduled day for students is Friday.
“If the teachers do not report to work, the district will be forced to take the necessary steps the judge outlined in court to seek relief,” the district said in a news release.
The district has about 350 teachers, all of whom are represented by the union, district spokeswoman Laurie Wiedenmeyer said. She couldn’t say how many teachers might show up for work Thursday. And she hesitated to talk about school start times.
“Our goal is not for that to happen,” Wiedenmeyer said about further court action.
“We are committed to an agreement and we will stay and do what ever it takes,” she said about the bargaining process.
Tumwater teachers have been on strike since Sept. 1 after their contract expired Aug. 31. In addition to pay, class sizes and class safety have been touted as key issues. Before the two sides called in a mediator, the last district pay offer was a 13-16 percent increase over two years, Wiedenmeyer said.
Earlier Wednesday, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese granted a preliminary injunction to the Tumwater School District. Last week, he had ruled that the Tumwater strike was illegal, but stopped short of ordering teachers back to work, saying he wanted more evidence that the strike was causing “substantial harm” to students. He then scheduled Wednesday’s hearing.
The two sides spent about an hour laying out their arguments before Lanese made his ruling before a courtroom filled with Tumwater teachers.
“I am ordering that the Tumwater Education Association, and anyone acting in concert with it, is enjoined, effective immediately, in engaging in any strike against the district,” he said, adding that the association should notify its employees immediately about the court’s decision.
Lanese did not set a return-to-work date, and he said he will not preemptively penalize teachers who refuse to comply with the ruling. He said any penalty will be in the hands of the school district. If the teachers vote to continue to strike, they could be held in contempt of the judge’s ruling, but that will be up to the district to pursue that course of action in court.
“I have no reason to believe that is going to happen,” Lanese said.
“I fear the longer this continues to happen,” he said about the strike, “I believe there will be harm.”
He said evidence about the effect a strike can have on disadvantaged and disabled children was compelling. And yet he also said he had received many declarations from teachers who felt those students with special needs would not be harmed by the strike.