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‘Democracy in action’

Teachers picket outside schools on anticipated first day

Jaya Flanary and Tess Harstrick, Editors-in-Cheif
Originally published September 9, 2015

Chelsea LeingangBHS teachers gathered outside the school today from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Seattle Education Association members plan to strike until a tentative agreement is met with Seattle Public Schools.

Chelsea Leingang

BHS teachers gathered outside the school today from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Seattle Education Association members plan to strike until a tentative agreement is met with Seattle Public Schools.

A united sea of red walked the corner of BHS today. Rather than welcoming their new students, union teachers equipped themselves with Seattle Education Association shirts, strike signs and positive energy.

After days of attempted negotiations with Seattle Public Schools regarding a new contract, SEA members interrupted last night’s school board meeting to announce their official strike. Teachers then gathered today outside Seattle schools in hopes of making an impression in their communities.

While all teachers picketing on NW 65th Street shared a common enthusiasm, many wished that they could be inside teaching. “It creates this tremendous outpouring of energy that I’d rather spend on my students,” Language Arts teacher April McKenna said. “But I feel that due to the district’s intractability that it was something that we couldn’t avoid . . . Unfortunately withholding our role as educators is the only thing that we can really do to show our strength.”

Science teacher Noam Gundle was asked to be a strike captain because of his connections to the wider school community. “I couldn’t be prouder of the educators in Seattle Schools,” Gundle said. “We’ve stepped up and organized and communicated with one another, and we are united more than we’ve ever been to support a strong contract for the schools students deserve.”

The union’s vote to strike, which took place at Benaroya Hall on Sept. 3, was unanimous. According to today’s bargaining update published by the SEA, the vote was “virtually unprecedented” because it was the largest turnout in history and teachers don’t remember a past unanimous strike vote.

According to Joe Kelly, Language Arts teacher and member of the SEA Bargaining Team, teachers have a variety of requirements they want written in a new contract. These include major issues such as a larger focus on our special education programs, proportionate discipline for interracial students and teacher compensation.

“We work really hard as teachers. I know that I put in probably double the amount of hours I’m contracted for on a regular basis,” Language Arts teacher Taryn Coe said. “That takes away from my own family. Living in an expensive city like Seattle, I would like to be fairly compensated.”

Tricia Lepse, Kindergarten teacher at Loyal Heights Elementary and mother of three, has one child at Whitman Middle School and a junior at Ballard High School. “I was actually a little teary this morning, because I was not able to send my girls off to school,” Lepse said. “You get their outfits ready, you get the backpacks packed, and then all of a sudden, I realize that my action is keeping them from doing what they need to do.”

Nevertheless, Lepse was out picketing on 25th Avenue NW and NW 80th Street today, showing her support for the union. “[My children] know that it’s important and they support me. We are asking for things for all children, and that includes my children too. And if the union supports me then my children benefit from that . . . Unions go back a long time in my family. My dad was an electrician for Seattle City Light and I remember him going on strike and wanting fair wages.”

Lepse is not the only teacher who treats the strike as somewhat of a family affair. Coe brought her children with her to picket on NW 65th Street and 15th Avenue NW. “I thought it was a great opportunity for them to see democracy in action, and to come out and see what it’s like when a group of people who believe really strongly in something [gather],” Coe said. “I come from a long line of educators. [My dad] told me that when he was on strike he would carry me around as a baby on his arm.”

One of the few issues the bargaining committee has resolved is that of recess time. Recess time in SPS is far from consistent. Originally, teachers wanted 45 minutes, though they negotiated it down to 30 minutes district wide, which they received. “Our issue is that we want it [recess time] to be equal for everybody,” Lepse said. 

“If I was to sit and lecture to a kindergartener all day I could probably be sure that 50 percent of what I was trying to teach would not go in,” Lepse said. “If they don’t have that break time for recess, where they have their own play and their own creative energy, then it’s really hard for them to come back and focus.”

“I just want to teach,” Leslie Norman, a special education instructional assistant at Loyal Heights Elementary, said. “I’m a little bit sad that the school district is not willing to work with us. It doesn’t seem like they’re willing to meet us in the middle . . . it’s hard to work for an employer that treats you that way.”

SPS Superintendent Larry Nyland had been considering along with the rest of the district to take the teachers union to court for striking. Norman believes this illustrates the district’s resistence to work towards an agreeable contract for the teachers.

Community response to the strike has been positive for the teachers union. Parents brought food to strikers on NW 65th Street and to the bargaining committee. “The district is not going to listen to the teachers, they will listen to the parents, and they will listen to the community,” said Newman. “Parents have a lot more power than we have, so if we can get the parents to talk to the district and strike with us, it will have a big impact.”

While as a whole, teachers conveyed a preference to be working within school walls with their students instead of picketing outside them, the teachers union has stated in the Sept. 9 SEA bargaining update that they will continue the strike until they reach a tentative agreement with the district regarding their demands.

“I wanted to be in there today,” Kelly said, gesturing to the brick facade of Ballard High School behind him. “I don’t have any interest in striking . . . I really do think we’re a lot closer than most people think.”

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