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Tuesday, October 21, 2003 - Page updated at 01:36 A.M.

Marysville teachers vote to end long strike

By J.J. Jensen and Jennifer Sullivan
Times Snohomish County bureau

STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Cathy Elkington, a Marysville teacher, in red, gets a hug outside the courtroom yesterday at the Snohomish County Superior Court.
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EVERETT — Finally, it's over.

That was the sentiment of Marysville teachers, community members and students after the striking teachers voted late last night to return to work.

Less than 12 hours after a Snohomish County Superior Court judge ruled the strike unlawful and ordered teachers back to work, more than 600 rain-soaked Marysville Education Association (MEA) members — many clad in "I'd rather be teaching" T-shirts — packed the historic Everett Theatre.

Of the 605 association members at the theater for the union's general-membership meeting, 420 — or 69 percent — voted to return to work on the terms of last year's contract. Classes will resume tomorrow.

"Our objectives have not changed. We will just arrive at them in a different order. Our battle does not end tonight. We will continue," said MEA President Elaine Hanson. "We will remove the administration, change the School Board and achieve a fair and satisfactory contract."

Despite the discontent with the district's leadership, Marysville district spokeswoman Judy Parker said teachers did the right thing for children. She acknowledged healing needs to take place but said Superintendent Linda Whitehead is the best person for the job.

"Marysville has been through a lot of superintendents," Parker said. "Linda is our sixth in 10 years. I'm not sure a different superintendent would address the problems that are here. I think that her emphasis on student achievement, and holding people accountable for improving student learning makes her an easy target. But it's time for our district to get busy on student achievement."

Earlier in the day, Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Linda Krese ordered the teachers to return to work tomorrow, blasting the teachers union and school-district officials for failing to settle the dispute in four days of mediation.

Whitehead said the district is not interested in punishing teachers — just in getting children back in classes. The third-year superintendent was especially happy for the district's seniors and kindergartners.

"I'm very excited because we finally have our kids and teachers back in school," she said. "I'm hopeful, like any new school year, it will be a good year for our students and a good year for learning. We just want all students to pull out all their new outfits and book bags and be ready to report."

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Krese's ruling came on the state-record 49th day of the strike. The previous record was 37 days in the Fife School District in 1995.

"The strike has gone on much too long," she said. "There are a lot of adults engaged in a standoff to the detriment of these children."

Krese told teachers to return to work under the conditions of their previous contract, and for both sides to bargain in good faith for a new one. She promised to enforce monetary and possibly criminal sanctions on teachers who disobey her order, and said it's "time for all of the adults to grow up and look at their obligations to these children." Hanson continues to blame the strike on the School Board.

"It's amazing the resolve of our members," she said. "They said loud and clear we are not going to put up with Dr. Whitehead and the School Board. They need a fair and reasonable contract, and they're not going to get that with this School Board."

At times during the meeting, members stood and cheered in unison: "The supe must go" and "Erase the Board."

Regardless of teachers going back to work, a new contract still needs to be resolved. The district wants to move to the state salary schedule and keep a local pay schedule at its current rate for teachers' extra duties outside the classroom. The union opposes both moves.

Traditionally in Washington, injunctions have not succeeded in getting striking teachers back to work. In fact, say union leaders, injunctions are viewed as strong-arm tactics that solidify union membership.

In the past 30 years, according to records from the Washington Education Association (WEA), injunctions have been sought 34 times and granted 28 times. Only four times did teachers return to work; the other 24 times they remained on strike.

Only three times in the past decade have injunctions been sought to end teachers strikes. Each time — in Bremerton in 1994; Fife, Pierce County, in 1995; and Issaquah last year — teachers voted to remain on strike.

In Issaquah, teachers originally voted to defy the judge's order to return to work, and the district made plans to staff classrooms with substitutes, administrators, support employees and parents.

But a last-minute agreement was reached, and the regular teachers were in the classroom when school started.

Only once, in the 1973 Evergreen Education Association strike in Vancouver, were teachers jailed for not complying with a court order. A WEA spokesman said he was unaware of any teacher being fined for not returning to school.

Krese had postponed a ruling last Wednesday and ordered both sides to meet the next four days in mediation to try to reach a settlement.

The district and the union met each day, but the stalemate continued.

A parents group called "Tired of the Strike" started the court battle between the school district and the MEA when it sought an injunction against the two groups Oct. 6. A week later, a school-district attorney sought a similar injunction.

"I think it's absolutely awesome news," Tired of the Strike parent Dean Henry said of the teachers' vote last night. "We feel like we accomplished the mission we set out to do, which was get the children back in school. I applaud the teachers for the decision they made in the face of what I know is not an easy decision for them."

Yesterday, Krese declared the strike illegal and denied the complaint of Tired of the Strike. Because the district filed a cross-complaint against the MEA, Krese said, the parents group didn't have legal standing against the teachers union. She said Tired of the Strike could remain involved to make sure the school district fulfills its obligations.

A report released Sunday by Gov. Gary Locke's "special masters" assigned to evaluate the strike, retired state Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Utter and former legislator Denny Heck, suggested the district and the MEA go to binding arbitration, in which a third-party participant would review the issues on both sides and make a final decision.

Neither the district nor MEA wants to seek binding arbitration.

J.J. Jensen: 425-745-7809

Jennifer Sullivan: 425-783-0604

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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