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Teachers March Through Seattle Streets As One-Day Strike Closes District Schools

Teacher union protests that have rolled through Washington school districts for nearly a month now reached a climactic moment Tuesday as thousands of Seattle teachers walked off the job for a one-day strike, leaving schools in the state's largest district closed.

An estimated 4,000 teachers picketed at eight high schools in the morning before marching more than two miles through downtown Seattle in the afternoon, railing against legislative proposals they say leave them underpaid and overwhelmed in classrooms.

The primary targets of the teachers' ire — Olympia legislators, and Republican state lawmakers in particular — fired back, defending their budget plans, raising their doubts about the strikes' legality and accusing teachers union leaders of using students as political "pawns."

"Come on down on Saturday and talk to us, come down during the year and talk to us," said Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, who caucuses with the Republicans, during a hearing in Olympia Tuesday. "But ... I think it's very poor modeling for your students when you walk out or strike when you've committed to be there."

Credit Kyle Stokes / KPLU
Jonathan Knapp, president of the local teachers union, the Seattle Education Association, leads a chant during a rally at Westlake Park. Thousands of teachers, parents and students marched to the park during a one-day strike that closed Seattle Public Schools.

  But striking teachers said critical lawmakers have only themselves to blame for the protests. Union leaders say even House Democrats' proposed 4.8 percent cost-of-living raise for teachers is too meager. They also criticized both political parties for supporting smaller class sizes only in Grades K-3, rather than in all grades, as the voter-approved Initiative 1351 demands.

"When they start doing what they're supposed to do, then we won't do this. It's very simple," said Wayne Miller, a Latin teacher at Seattle's Garfield High School, who strummed a banjo during picketing along the busy road outside his school.

'You Can't Ignore The Numbers'

No single day of the rolling walkouts has impacted more students than Tuesday.

Issaquah and Mercer Island schools were closed as teachers from those districts joined Seattle's protest activities. In the Gig Harbor area, Peninsula School District teachers staged a half-day walkout, sending students home at midday. Together, the four districts enroll more than 84,000 students.

This week alone, walkouts in other districts — from University Place to Bellevue to the Tri-Cities — will impact a total of 264,000 students.

"You can't ignore the numbers of districts and teachers and educators and people everywhere that are finally all giving the same message that the time has come," said Trina Kagochi, who picketed across the street from the Seattle school where she teaches special education, South Shore K-8.

After picketing in the morning, teachers boarded yellow school buses to Seattle Center, where they massed for a march through downtown. They paraded down Second Avenue just after 11:15 a.m., arriving for a rally at Westlake Plaza just before noon.

Olympia GOP Calls Foul On Strikes

But Republican state lawmakers said striking teachers should've been in their classrooms Tuesday. As teachers marched back to the Space Needle after their rally, the GOP-controlled Senate Commerce and Labor Committee heard a bill, which Sheldon sponsors, that would block teachers from collecting salary or benefits during a work stoppage.  

"We have thousands of schoolchildren not in class learning today because of what I believe and what we believe to be illegal strikes," said Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, who chairs the committee.

Democrats who sit on the committee walked out of the hearing, saying the bill was only a "messaging tool." Teachers union leaders declined to send a representative to the meeting, calling it "political theater," since teachers already receive no pay on days they strike.

Credit Ted S. Warren / AP Photo
AP Photo
FILE - Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, who caucuses with the chamber's Republican majority.

  But teachers are paid for make-up days added to the school year after a work stoppage, and Sheldon said in a statement the bill is aimed at preventing compensation on those days. (A representative of the Washington Association of School Administrators at the hearing said the bill would require changes to meet that intent.)

Sheldon also hinted teachers' aims were unrealistic. In a statement, he said Senate Republicans' budget proposal gives K-12 education "a bigger share of the state budget than has been seen in the last 30 years."

Both House Democrats and Senate Republicans have called for increase of more than $1.3 billion in education spending to meet the funding mandate in the state Supreme Court's McCleary decision.

Balancing Passion & Pay

But many teachers fault the legislature for putting off cost-of-living raises for the past several state budget cycles — and for Seattle teacher Serena Samar, the cost of those deferrals is adding up.

"My biggest concern is being able to work in a profession that I love, making a huge difference, and not being able to support myself," said Samar, a Garfield High School special education teacher.

Samar would love to pursue a master's degree. But even though the credential would bump up her salary, she says the increase wouldn't be enough for her to justify the $10,000-$20,000 cost.

"I almost have to choose not to educate myself further because I can't afford it," said Samar, standing on a Westlake Park sidewalk as her fellow teachers heard speeches at their Tuesday afternoon rally.

Samar paused — it was clearly difficult for her to speak about this. She teaches high schoolers, she explained, and aren't teachers of students that age supposed to model how furthering one's education is worth it?

"That part," she said, "is really hard to admit."

This post has been updated.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.