Judge tells sides to hash things out

EVERETT — Marysville School District administrators and teachers were scolded Wednesday by a Snohomish County Superior Court judge, who ordered both sides to sit down and spend at least 32 hours talking with each other.

The goal: to mediate in good faith and re-examine their positions in their conflict over a proposed three-year labor contract that has led to the longest teachers strike in state history.

Judge Linda Krese also ordered both sides to take "into account their mutual obligation to provide educational services to the children residing in the district."

Marysville’s more than 11,000 students have not been in school since June.

Krese also allowed the district to become a plaintiff in seeking an injunction to force teachers back to work.

She will decide whether to approve the injunction at 9 a.m. Monday.

A parents group, Tired Of The Strike, originally sought the injunction in a suit against the district and the teachers union.

Teachers and district officials said they would follow Krese’s order, which requires eight hours a day of negotiations with the state mediator today, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Krese ordered that all the new sessions be held in Snohomish County. Both parties met three times last weekend: in SeaTac on Friday, Kirkland on Saturday and SeaTac again on Sunday. The last time they’d met before that was Oct. 6.

"This is just not an acceptable schedule," Krese said. "These kids need to go to school. I think both sides have an obligation to the children they’re supposed to be serving.

"Why aren’t we meeting on a more accelerated schedule? That is not a serious effort to get this resolved in my opinion."

The timing and location of the new sessions had not been determined late Wednesday.

"I feel that the onus is still on the school board," said Elaine Hanson, president of the 650-member Marysville Education Association.

"It’s their responsibility to still bring in a compromise to end these talks."

Specifically, she said the district needs to drop its proposal to adopt the state salary model, which could freeze many teachers’ pay.

Marysville’s veteran teachers are among the highest paid in the state, averaging about $54,000 annually, including their salaries and pay for extracurricular work such as coaching or summer school. About 45 percent have masters’ degrees, which puts them at the high end of the salary schedule.

Their salaries have historically been based on contracts they have negotiated with the district, which are funded by revenue from state and local tax money.

Their old three-year contract expired in August, and 98 percent of them voted to strike.

Teachers are asking the district to give them a total of 7.5 percent more by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

The district’s latest proposal, made on day 39 of the strike, offers teachers no change in the salary range that comes from local tax dollars.

The district also proposed to set up a panel to move teachers to the state’s salary schedule for the last two years of the contract.

Several hundred people, many teachers and their supporters, wearing red to show unity, packed the fifth-floor outside the Snohomish County courtroom. They spilled out into the hallway and the courtyard outside. At one point, the fire marshal went through the hallway and asked the crowd to thin out.

Dave Carpentier, a Marysville-Pilchuck High School teacher in his 30th year, said the judge’s decision sounded like good news.

"I think the general feeling out in the courtyard is it gives us hope," he said. "Heaven help us if they don’t bargain in good faith now."

Fran McCarthy, a teacher who also handles administrative duties at Quil Ceda Elementary, praised the judge’s comments to delay her decision on handing down an injunction.

"I think it’s the best possible scenario," she said. "We don’t want to see the community further divided."

If Krese does decide to order teachers back, every one of them could face a $250 fine for every day they refuse.

Teachers are waiting for that ruling and will set a meeting next week to decide what to do if she grants the injunction.

During the hearing, the teachers union lawyer, Mitch Cogdill, asked Krese not to get involved in the bargaining process.

Cogdill focused part of his argument on the individual teacher contracts, which did not have a salary amount. He told Krese that if teachers were ordered back to work, there’s no set amount for compensation.

The judge has no authority to enforce an indefinite contract, Cogdill said.

District officials say they are also ready to talk again in earnest.

School board President Helen Mount said she hopes the talks will meet the judge’s expectations of being intensive.

"Obviously we want our students back in school as soon as possible," she said.

The district’s attorney, Michael Hoge, said the board was not anxious to bring the strike issue to court and "we do not do so lightly."

In fact, the district only joined the court action on Monday. Board members have not said when they voted to take that action. Ordinarily it would be publicly announced as required by state law.

After the strike started, the board suspended all public meetings and handed emergency powers to Superintendent Linda Whitehead, which allows her to make all decisions for the district.

In siding with the parents group, Hoge said the district believes "the time for school to start is long past. Striking is not a permitted activity" of the Education Employment Reform Act, a state law.

School board members met with the district negotiating team Wednesday night to prepare for the next four days of talks.

"The school board is working diligently with the negotiating team trying to make sure we are bargaining in good faith through the weekend," board member Mark Johnson said. "We are working hard to try to get a deal before Monday."

He would not say whether the board would consider setting aside their demand that the teachers accept the state salary schedule.

Whitehead said that the district and teachers are interested in getting the students back to school.

The decision to negotiate more aggressively "is something that I feel very encouraged about and obviously it is something I can live with."

For headway to be made, the district has to reconsider its offer, parent Joni Thomas said.

"I believe our school board needs to show up at the table with something new," she said.

R. Dean Henry said Tired Of The Strike members are a bit disappointed that a ruling on the injunction wasn’t handed down Wednesday, but they are encouraged nonetheless by the order to continue negotiations.

"We would be very pleased to have this settled and done with," he said.

The parents group hopes it doesn’t come down to teachers being fined, he said.

He suggested a more people-oriented strategy. "There have been some of us who have suggested giving them (negotiators) a pitcher of water and no bathroom."

Part of the group’s argument has been that their children are being hurt by the district’s failure to solve the dispute.

The length of the strike, and the long delays between earlier negotiating sessions have taken a toll on students, Judge Krese said.

The district is required to provide 180 days of instruction before Aug. 31, 2004. The teachers have suggested that school can start as late as Jan. 9 and, by running six days a week, still meet the state requirement.

That wouldn’t work for students, Krese said. At this point, she said, "I don’t think you could come up with any scheme that isn’t harmful to the children."

Tensions between teachers, Superintendent Whitehead and board members have been mounting for years.

Two years ago, Marysville teachers voted no confidence in Whitehead and the five-member board. Three incumbent school board members are seeking re-election next month. Teachers are supporting their opponents.

A dispute broke out earlier this year when the district declared that Marysville teachers’ attendance at a statewide teachers union rally in Olympia was not permitted in their contract. The district scheduled teachers to work on Feb. 14, a day their contract said they were off.

Teachers didn’t show up, and the board tried to run the schools without the teachers on that day. The district wanted to dock teachers’ pay. An arbitrator later decided that the school district administrators and the board were wrong. Teachers were given their day’s pay.

Meanwhile, the district has other pressing matters to consider. A recent state audit of the district’s 2001-02 books uncovered an embarrassment of errors and lax controls on money.

And the district is likely to consider asking taxpayers for more money to build a new high school to ease crowding at Marysville-Pilchuck High School, the most crowded in the state.

Marysville-Pilchuck senior class president Dustin Dekle wasn’t in an upbeat mood after Krese’s decision to delay her ruling until Monday.

After all, the mediation process has been slow. "If nothing is coming out of it so far, why does she think something is going to come out of it now?" he said.

Parents who showed up to support the teachers said they believe the order is a step toward progress.

"I think we should all feel real grateful about the decision that was made today," said Bonnie Krueger, a parent who also an educational assistant. "I think it’s something we all wanted. We want good-faith bargaining."

Reporter Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446 or stevick@heraldnet.com.

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