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Originally published September 7, 2009 at 9:04 PM | Page modified September 8, 2009 at 4:57 PM

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Kent teachers vote to defy judge, continue strike

After negotiating throughout the weekend with the help of a new mediator, striking teachers in the Kent School District voted Monday night...

Seattle Times staff reporter

After negotiating throughout the weekend with the help of a new mediator, striking teachers in the Kent School District voted Monday night to continue their strike, defying a court order that they report to their classrooms Tuesday morning.

Though the vote means the district's 26,000 students will not be returning to classes Wednesday as planned, leaving some families to scramble for child care, support for the teachers from parents appeared to be growing.

An estimated 100 parents showed up Monday evening outside Green River Community College, where teachers met for the vote. Parents formed lines that flanked the teachers and cheered, waved and high-fived them as they filed inside the gym.

The key issue is class size, with teachers saying that not only are the district's classrooms seriously overcrowded, but many of the students have special needs.

Two and a half hours after it began, the meeting ended with some 74 percent of the teachers voting to continue their strike, according to Lisa Brackin Johnson, president of the teachers union, the Kent Education Association.

District spokeswoman Becky Hanks said the district and representatives of the teachers union were to resume negotiating immediately.

"We are absolutely committed to working through these issues and coming to resolution," said Hanks.

Parent Leah Ayers was among those who showed up to back the teachers, saying some 400 parents have signed a petition expressing their support.

As teachers passed by parent Donna Hsu on their way inside to vote, Hsu reached out to hug them.

"When you have classes with 30 to 32 kids," Hsu said, "and half of those are English-as-a-second-language, it's no longer teaching. It's managing."

A couple of parents disagreed with the others.

One, Regina Herron, said she, too, is concerned about class size, but given the state of the economy, the money to fund smaller classes is simply not there.

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"It saddens me to know that most of these families who are struggling anyway have to come up with extra money for child care" because of the strike, she said.

The strike began Aug. 27, delaying the original start of classes on Monday, Aug. 31. The next day, the district filed for an injunction to force the district's 1,700 teachers back to work. At a hearing Thursday, King County Superior Court Judge Andrea Darvas ruled the strike illegal.

Darvas urged both sides to bargain over the weekend and ordered teachers to return to their classrooms Tuesday so that classes could start on Wednesday.

District administrators and the teachers union said progress was made over the weekend, but they were not able to come to terms on what is now a two-year contract.

The negotiations come amid a statewide financial crisis that has forced school districts across Washington to cut their budgets.

In Kent, district officials said the demand by teachers to cut class size would cost $2.7 million and that the teachers' proposed salary increase would cost the district $8.5 million.

The district values and respects its teachers, district Superintendent Ed Vargas has said, but the dollars are simply not there to fund smaller classes.

The district has no cap on class size and therefore has some of the largest classes in the area, according to the teachers union.

Earlier, teacher Allen Storkel said that he had 29 students in his fourth-grade class last year. Thirteen were just learning English, several were developmentally disabled and three had ongoing behavior issues. "I was overwhelmed at times," he said.

On the issue of class size, "I'm standing firm. ... I believe in high standards for teaching, but even the most amazing teacher is going to face challenges with 29 kids."

Earlier in the strike, the two sides appeared to have reached a tentative agreement on salaries, with both sides agreeing to about a 3 percent increase, but that offer was contingent upon the school district accepting the rest of the union's proposal regarding smaller classes and other items, union organizers said.

The two sides began bargaining in April. In mid-August they began using a mediator, and they went to the second mediator on Saturday.

Since Darvas ordered them to return to the classroom, many Kent teachers have expressed concerns about sanctions they might face — from fines to being arrested — for disobeying her order. According to the Washington Education Association, the last time a striking teacher was arrested was during a strike in Vancouver in 1973.

Only three times in the past decade have injunctions been sought to try to end teachers' strikes.

On two of those occasions — in Bremerton in 1994, and in Fife in 1995 — teachers voted to remain on strike. The third time — in Issaquah in 2002 — teachers also voted to defy a judge's order, but a last-minute agreement was reached, and the teachers were in the classroom when school started.

Information from Seattle Times archives was included

in this report.

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