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Tacoma schools must open on time next week

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Aug. 24, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
August 24, 2011 5:58 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

The Tacoma School District has long enjoyed a rare degree of community support, as evidenced by successful levies and generous construction funding.

That bond must not be broken lightly – and a potential teachers strike next week threatens to do just that.

Let’s be clear about what led to the tense showdown between Tacoma’s school administrators and teachers.

This isn’t a matter of greedy teachers or callous school officials. A stark conflict was built into their contract talks from the start. District leaders and the Tacoma Education Association are at odds because the Legislature was forced to cut funding for the state’s public schools last spring.

Had the district received money enough to maintain a healthy-sized staff and strong programs – and give teachers the money and small classes they want, everyone would have walked away smiling before now.

Nor are lawmakers the culprits. They were dealt a losing hand by the distressed economy, which forced brutal cuts throughout state government, schools and colleges. The core issue in Tacoma is the core issue everywhere else: The money just ain’t there.

The district administration – which has already been forced to close schools and lay off staff – must somehow cope with the Legislature’s decision to cut compensation for teachers across the state by 1.9 percent. On the other side of the table, leaders of the teachers union are loath to sign off on pay cuts or heavier workloads for their members.

Something’s got to give. There are multiple ways to negotiate a way through this conflict. The Peninsula School District, for example, cut work requirements for teachers in exchange for reductions in pay.

But as far as the community itself is concerned, one thing is non-negotiable: starting classes on time next Thursday.

This is one of the worst years imaginable for a teachers strike. In addition to the usual distress – day-care crises, at-risk children kept from campus safe havens, work disruptions – a strike this year is likely to produce a bitter backlash from much of the public.

Most Tacoma families have themselves endured leaner paychecks or other hardships as a result of the recession. Many Tacomans have lost jobs outright. They won’t be amused by a union and administration that can’t find creative ways to make do and get on with the job of educating children.

It is deeply disturbing that the two sides seem so far apart this close to the scheduled start of classes. The union and administration have lately taken to exchanging volleys in the form of public letters.

Superintendent Art Jarvis on Wednesday revealed the TEA’s startling demand for a 1 percent pay increase. That looks too much like a far-fetched opening position – and opening demands should have been laid out and traded away many weeks ago.

Does everyone involved – including the state union leaders advising the TEA – realize what the stakes are? Tacomans haven’t seen their school system paralyzed by a strike in decades. Only a fool would want to find out how they’d react to one in today’s economic distress.

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