Striking Tacoma teachers to vote on contract

Tacoma School Board president Kurt Miller, left, shakes hands with Andy Coons, president of the Tacoma Education Association, Sept. 21, 2011, after they announced a tentative agreement in the Tacoma teachers strike, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

OLYMPIA, Wash. - A Tacoma teachers union that has been on strike for 10 days is preparing to vote Thursday on a new contract proposal brokered in late-night talks with the governor.

Ratification of the deal would allow students to return to school Friday after eight days of cancelled classes. Union leadership touted the contract at a news conference late Wednesday, calling it "what we've been asking for."

"We have a fair contract that respects teachers and is also good for the students of Tacoma," said Andy Coons, president of the Tacoma Education Association. "We want nothing more than for school to start on Friday."

The announcement came after more than seven hours of talks at the office of Gov. Chris Gregoire, who had asked negotiators to stay until the two sides could reconcile their differences. She has no direct control over Washington schools but stepped in to use her influence as a mediator.

She complimented the representatives for bargaining in good faith.

"It was give and take. It was understanding," Gregoire said. "It was getting rid of misinformation and misunderstanding."

Negotiators declined to immediately discuss the details of the agreement, saying they wanted teachers to see it first. Gregoire said it could be a model for other such contracts.

The two sides have been disputing issues including pay and class size, but the major sticking point has been how the district handles teacher transfers. The district has wanted to consider some factors in addition to seniority.

The Tacoma Education Association, the union for 1,900 teachers, has been defying a court order for them to return to work. Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff has said he's considering giving the district the option of replacing teachers who are on the picket line, and the next court hearing was set for Tuesday.

State and local public employees, including teachers, have no legally protected right to strike, according to a 2006 state attorney general's opinion. But that opinion also noted state law lacks specific penalties for striking public employees.

Jennifer Boutell, a mother to 8- and 10-year-old girls, said she's lucky to be able to stay at home and watch her daughters during the strike, but everyone's patience is running out. On Wednesday, she dropped of her daughters at a community center so they could be around other kids their age.

"Today I just couldn't take the bickering," said Boutell, who also writes on a local blog named Tacoma Mama. "It was an emotional necessity for everyone."

The strike has forced Boutell to delay freelance web development projects, and she said she knows of parents at her daughter's school who have skipped work. Day care centers around the city are charging $35 per day per child during the strike, she said.

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