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Originally published August 26, 2009 at 7:44 PM | Page modified August 27, 2009 at 10:09 AM

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Kent teachers vote to strike as talks go on

Kent teachers voted Wednesday night to walk off their jobs, the first of several school districts where strikes may occur as school starts over the next few weeks.

Seattle Times education reporter

What's next

Kent teachers strike begins today.

However, negotiations are set to resume today in hopes of reaching an agreement before the scheduled start of school Monday.

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Kent teachers voted overwhelmingly Wednesday night to walk off their jobs, making Kent the first of several school districts where strikes may occur over the next few weeks.

Eighty-six percent of Kent teachers voted to strike, said Lisa Brackin Johnson, president of the Kent Education Association. About 1,500 of the district's 1,700 teachers voted, she said.

"The Kent educators are here to stand up for what's right and just for our students," Brackin Johnson said, adding that teachers have received strong support from parents at community meetings held by teachers.

District officials expressed disappointment in the vote, especially after they had made what they believed were significant proposals at the bargaining table early Wednesday evening. But Brackin Johnson dismissed those proposals as "not much new."

Teachers will be on picket lines or at home today rather than preparing for classes, which are supposed to begin Monday. The bargaining teams will resume meeting this morning in hopes of reaching an agreement in the next four days.

Negotiations also continue in the Everett and Lake Stevens school districts and about 100 other districts statewide. Some are expected to settle shortly, as happened late Tuesday in Shoreline, where a tentative agreement was reached two days before a scheduled strike vote.

In Seattle, the teachers union reached a tentative agreement with the school district last week, and teachers will vote Monday on whether to accept a one-year contract that includes a 1 percent pay increase.

In Kent, the state's fourth-largest school district, teachers and administrators reached an impasse several weeks ago, and they remain far apart, even with the help of a mediator.

This is the first time Kent teachers have gone on strike, said Dale Folkerts of the Washington Education Association, the statewide union of which Kent teachers are a part.

The Kent teachers met for about two hours before they voted.

Class size and time with students are the big issues, not pay. And respect.

Michael Imbruglio, a chemistry teacher at Kentlake High, said he saw 150 students each day this past school year, compared with about 90 the previous year, when he taught in the Federal Way School District.

"We're tired of being disrespected," he said.

Some teachers said they were on the fence before the meeting, especially given the state of the national economy. But listening to their colleagues persuaded them to vote to strike.

"We have to think about what's best for kids," said Prita McKenna, a second-grade teacher at Springbrook Elementary.

Even before the vote was announced, some teachers were outside the room, assembling picket signs.

The teachers want the district to use some of its $21 million in reserves to reduce the number of students in each class, which, Brackin Johnson said, is as high as 45 in some high-school classes, and 31 in first and second grades.

They also want fewer meetings, so they have more time to help students before and after school.

Valerie Munch, who teaches math at Northwood Middle, said she now has a meeting of some sort every day before school, and no longer can open her classroom early to answer questions from students, or give them a place to finish their homework.

Union officials say Kent administrators are sitting on reserves twice as large as Kent School Board policy requires, putting Kent in a much better financial position than many other districts, where teachers have not pushed for such expensive changes.

"Kent is in a fortunate position because they do have money in the bank," Folkerts said.

But Kent administrators say spending those reserves would be irresponsible. And there isn't really $21 million available, said district spokeswoman Becky Hanks, because much of that money already is earmarked.

The district is offering to increase Kent teachers' compensation by $8.5 million, which Hanks said amounts to an average raise of 3 percent this coming school year, and 1.5 percent the next.

That's expected to move Kent teacher pay from the bottom of area districts to about the middle, she said.

And in a proposal delivered to the union just before the Wednesday meeting started, the district offered to put a paraprofessional in fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms if there are more than 30 students, down from the current threshold of 32. It also proposed to form a committee of teachers, classified staff and community members to discuss class size.

Hanks said reducing class size is so expensive that such a move needs to be discussed by a broad group, because it could adversely affect the district's financial stability.

The district says it would cost $2.7 million to reduce each class by one student. The union disputes those figures.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359or lshaw@seattletimes.com

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