Talk, no action, in Marysville

MARYSVILLE — When students returned to classes in an Illinois school district on Tuesday, Marysville became the nation’s only community with closed schools because of a teachers strike.

The school district and teachers union are hoping four days of intensive court-ordered mediation that began Thursday will end Washington’s longest ever teachers strike.

On Wednesday, Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Linda Krese ordered both sides to meet in mediation at least eight hours a day through Sunday. If they can’t make progress, she will decide Monday whether to hand down an injunction ordering teachers back to work.

More than 11,000 students have been out of school since the strike began and some families are worried about a shortened summer, abbreviated midyear vacations and the possibility of school six days a week.

Neither side presented a new formal proposal Thursday, officials said.

Elaine Hanson, Marysville Education Association president, said there wasn’t much to report after the first day of talks which ended around 7 p.m.

"There wasn’t anything to get excited about like a settlement but we’ll talk again tomorrow," she said. Talks resume at 10:30 a.m. today.

Negotiators for the district spent eight hours in mediation but also began answering financial questions posed by a two-member panel appointed by Gov. Locke. Former state Supreme Court Justice Robert Utter and former state lawmaker Dennis Heck are examining the issues and claims made by both sides and will review data so the costs of each side’s proposal can be presented to the public.

When KIRO (710 AM) radio personality Dave Ross brought his morning show to Comeford Park in Marysville Thursday, talk of contract issues turned to criticism of the school board and questions about the way the district is being run.

School board member Mark Johnson sat next to school board candidate Vicki Gates for much of the questioning. Johnson defended the district’s bargaining positions and Superintendent Linda Whitehead before a crowd dominated by teachers and their supporters.

"The board is not representing me because I believe the superintendent has no leadership skills," said Karen Totten, a Marysville parent of a second-grader.

Totten said she is troubled by the distrust between the district and its teachers, which included a union "no confidence" vote in the superintendent two years ago.

Afterward, she said, "I feel the superintendent has treated them very disrespectfully. They don’t feel a part of the district’s decision-making process. I feel the school board is doing the same."

Johnson backed Whitehead.

"Dr. Whitehead is doing the right thing for children in the Marysville School District," he said.

When he added, "the central administration and the principals are all on board with Dr. Whitehead," many teachers jeered.

Whitehead later said the district is changing its priorities to be more student-oriented and that isn’t always popular, particularly when it comes to using money on student achievement that could go to teachers’ salaries.

"I believe somewhere along the way we have lost our purpose," she said. "My focus is to serve 11,200 students of our schools."

Besides picketing their homes and businesses and taking out a full-page newspaper ad, the teachers union has taken a 30-second TV ad targeting the school board. It is the first time striking teachers in Washington have used TV ads.

The ad is running on cable TV in Marysville.

Rich Wood, a Washington Education Association spokesman, said the ads are being paid from donations from individuals and other local unions.

The two sides remain apart on salary issues.

The district wants the teachers to convert to a state salary model for the tax money teachers receive in salary that comes from the state. It argues that it would be fairer to young teachers at the beginning of their careers and encourage more teachers to earn masters’ degrees.

The union wants to continue local bargaining for those state tax dollars. It says it doesn’t want to relinquish local control of how that salary money is divided to the whims of the Legislature.

John Hodgins, a math teacher at Marysville-Pilchuck High School, said the move to the state salary schedule would cut down on his earnings even though he has a master’s degree.

"I’m the kind of person the union is trying to protect," he said. "I have a master’s degree, and I would be frozen for the next two years."

On the local salary schedule, he would receive a $1,600 raise in each of the next two years, he said.

Teachers have been asking for a 7.5 percent salary increase over the next three years in local tax money. The district’s proposal is to maintain the existing salary range in local tax dollars.

Reporter Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446 or

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