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Originally published September 14, 2009 at 10:20 AM | Page modified September 15, 2009 at 12:49 AM

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Kent strike ends: Teachers overwhelmingly accept deal

Striking Kent teachers voted overwhelmingly to accept a tentative contract agreement reached Sunday evening. Classes resume Tuesday.

Seattle Times staff reporters

The Kent teachers strike ended shortly before 10 this morning after teachers voted overwhelmingly to accept a tentative contract agreement reached Sunday evening.

Some 1,360 of the members of the Kent Education Association attended this morning's meeting, with 94 percent voting to accept the offer.

Classes are to resume Tuesday.

Had teachers rejected the offer and continued striking, they each would have been fined $200 a day for each day the strike continued, retroactive to Sept. 8, when a judge ordered them to return to work.

Teachers were jubilant this morning, giving Lisa Brackin Johnson, president of the teachers union, a standing ovation.

After the meeting ended, Johnson called the strike a battle teachers had to wage. "Our members felt strongly enough for our students," she said. "We had to take the stand."

Class size had been the most contentious issue in the strike that began Aug. 27, with teachers asserting that not only are Kent's classrooms seriously overcrowded, but many students have health or behavior problems, come from impoverished families and are not native English speakers.

Teachers also wanted fewer mandatory meetings, saying it would give them more time to help students before and after school.

The new contract caps the number of students in grades K-3 at 29, and grades 4-6 at 32. In the contract that had expired, the caps were 31 and 34 respectively.

But there is no cap for grades 7 and higher, which angered some high-school teachers, including Tom Larsen, a teacher at Kentwood High School. He said many Kentwood teachers voted no on the contract and predicted that some will end up quitting.

The two-year contract also limits meetings to no more than eight per month.

It provides a salary increase of up to 2.75 percent the first year, and 1.6 percent the second year, depending on a teacher's level of experience and education.

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The tentative agreement was announced Sunday night — the 17th day of the strike — at a rally of hundreds of teachers and their supporters in downtown Kent. Many cheered and some cried at the news of a possible end to the dispute.

"It's the answer to my prayers," said Cherie Hale, a teacher at Millennium Elementary. "It's been the most emotional roller coaster. I've been crying all weekend."

Hale said the strike had been "tearing families apart."

Superintendent Edward Lee Vargas said Sunday that negotiators had found "that common ground that everybody feels good about." He characterized the agreement as "fair, transparent and fiscally responsible."

The strike was the first for the 1,700 teachers in the state's fourth-largest school district. It delayed the original scheduled opening of school on Aug. 31 for 26,000 students.

A turning point in negotiations came Sept. 1, when the district filed for an injunction in King County Superior Court, asking that the strike be ruled illegal and the teachers ordered back to class.

Under state law, public employees such as teachers are prohibited from striking.

Judge Andrea Darvas granted the district's injunction and ordered the teachers to return to classrooms Sept 8. But at a Sept. 7 union meeting of some 1,300 teachers, 74 percent voted to disobey the order.

Darvas said teachers would be fined $200 a day, retroactive to Sept. 8, if they did not report to work that day. The union also faced fines of $1,500 a day.

Darvas criticized teachers for their "disrespect for the court" and told them they were setting a poor example for students, who count on them to be role models.

Kent administrators had maintained that smaller classes were too expensive, given the district's budget constraints, and that spending its reserve fund on smaller classes, as the union wanted it to do, would be irresponsible.

Although the strike left many families scrambling for child care, growing numbers of parents nonetheless supported the teachers, rallying on their behalf and standing with them on picket lines.

There have been about 90 teacher strikes in Washington state since the early 1970s, the longest of them the 2003 Marysville School District strike, which lasted 49 days before an injunction was granted. The teachers decided to obey it and return to class.

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com or Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com. Seattle Times reporter Linda Shaw contributed to this report.

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