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Originally published September 4, 2009 at 12:04 AM | Page modified September 4, 2009 at 9:40 AM

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Kent teachers delay decision on whether to stay on strike

About 1,300 striking Kent School District teachers have put off until Monday evening their decision on whether to obey a judge's order that they return to the classroom Tuesday.

Seattle Times staff reporter

About 1,300 striking Kent School District teachers have put off until Monday evening their decision on whether to obey a judge's order that they return to the classroom Tuesday.

The teachers planned to rally at 11 a.m. today in front of the district office on Southeast 256th Street and said they would continue picketing over the weekend.

In the meantime, some 26,000 students in the state's fourth-largest district remain out of school, forcing parents to scramble for emergency day care, upsetting plans for seniors hoping to graduate on time and causing what King County Superior Court Judge Andrea Darvas on Thursday called "irreparable damage" to students and parents.

At a hearing Thursday in the Regional Justice Center in Kent, Darvas declared the strike illegal and ordered teachers to report to classrooms on Tuesday, with classes to resume the next day. She urged both sides to resume bargaining in the meantime, and those talks are to start up again today.

"No Washington court has ever held that teachers have the right to strike," Darvas told a courtroom filled with teachers and a few students.

At the hearing, Charles Lind, attorney for the district, said students are entitled to a public education but now, because of the strike, there are "parents who have no idea what to do about day care and child supervision."

The strike, now in its second week, delayed the scheduled start of the school year this past Monday.

Tabling until Monday evening their decision on whether to keep striking or return to work gives both sides the extra time they need to "get it right," said Lisa Brackin Johnson, president of the teachers union, the Kent Education Association. Monday's meeting will be at 6 p.m. in the Green River Community College gymnasium.

Meanwhile, teachers planned to intensify their efforts to plead their case to the public.

Shawn Welsh, who taught sixth grade last year at Springbrook Elementary, said he understands that a strike impacts everyone's schedule. "I realize this is a cause of concern."

But he also said it's important to get class sizes reduced. When classes are too big, not only does it hurt the quality of education, there are personality conflicts among students, and teachers end up being more baby-sitters than educators, he said.

In a "Letter to the Community from a Striking Kent Teacher's Perspective," Welsh wrote that "I work every second of every day to provide a quality education to my students from the time I walk into the school to the time I leave" and also take home an average of 12 to 15 hours of work each week — "more toward the end of a grading period."

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"The result is I am under rested and overstressed; life is very unbalanced, causing resentments from family and/or students and parents. Many days my ability to teach is significantly diminished due to increased responsibilities."

After Thursday's court hearing, teachers assembled at the Green River gym to discuss their options, with the union saying nearly three-quarters of its membership showed up. They were a raucous crowd, filling the bleachers, many wearing caps with KEA initials and others wearing orange sweat shirts, symbolic of the colors worn by people held in jail.

The two sides earlier reached a tentative agreement on the issue of salary and on 16 so-called housekeeping items, with class size remaining the biggest point of contention. While teachers insist that smaller classes are essential, the district says costs to achieve that — about $2.7 million — would be prohibitive.

Allison McCallie, mother of a 6-year-old and a 9-year-old at Horizon Elementary, said the strike is "a little inconvenient, but I'm dealing with it." She has asked her summer baby-sitter to continue watching her children until school starts and said the baby-sitter was happy to do so. "I support the teachers," McCallie said.

Margie Heagerty, a nurse at Covington Elementary, said it's not just that classrooms are crowded, but that many students have pressing needs and health issues, from seizure disorders and diabetes to severe allergies.

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