Wapato teachers, parents, students and their supporters staged a peaceful sit-in in the Wapato School District board room Friday afternoon following a tense school board meeting and raucous protests.
The Wapato School Board voted Friday to give Superintendent Becky Imler the power to do what’s necessary to end a teacher strike, including seeking a court injunction to require teachers to go back to work.
After the vote, board members filed out a side door while some audience members hurled insults at them. One woman, a Wapato High School alumna, rushed toward them and demanded to know why they were on the school board since they “obviously don’t care about the schools.”
The board met Friday to discuss Tuesday’s vote by the Wapato Education Association, in which members voted overwhelmingly to strike if they’re not offered a better pay increase by administrators by Tuesday, the first day of school. The Wapato Education Association represents more than 200 teachers and other certified staff.
After spending nearly two hours in a closed-door session, the board voted to adopt a resolution that gives administrators the authority to end a teacher strike should one occur. Four of the district’s five board members voted in favor of the resolution; board member Javier Vela abstained.
“I was stunned,” said Angelina Rocha, copresident of the Wapato Education Association. “I’m disappointed that it’s gotten this far. ... Today’s decision was disheartening, personally and professionally. But at this point, I’m going to have faith that we’re going to make progress and I’m hoping mediation goes well.”
When deciding how to end a strike, one option administrators could choose is to bring the union to court. If a judge rules in favor of the district, that judge, by way of an injunction, could order teachers to return to work. If teachers ignore the injunction, union representatives could face penalties including fines or — in rare cases — jail time.
The resolution gives administrators the authority to end a strike, but that doesn’t mean the district will take action should teachers walk out of classrooms, district spokesman Mike Balmelli said.
Union representatives and administrators met with a mediator Friday, and were still negotiating as of 11 p.m. The next mediation session is scheduled for Monday. If teachers do strike, the district’s 3,350 students likely won’t start school as scheduled Tuesday.
During the school board meeting, which was scheduled for 11:30 Friday morning, two security officers with the Phoenix Protective Corp. watched the door to the district office and attempted to keep the audience to under 40 people, saying allowing any more would violate fire code. As those attempting to enter were turned away, some wondered why the meeting wasn’t held at a larger venue.
There was no public comment session listed on the meeting’s agenda. Shortly after the meeting was called to order, the board voted to enter a closed-door session.
During the session, hundreds of district employees and their supporters rallied outside the office. They held signs that said “Shame,” and chanted slogans calling for better pay.
After the vote, roughly 30 teachers, parents, students and others remained in the boardroom, saying they refused to leave until administrators gave an explanation as to why they weren’t offering certified staff more money.
At least five law enforcement officers from the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office, Yakama Nation Tribal Police and the Wapato Police Department hovered outside.
When the district office closed at 3:30 p.m., those who remained in the boardroom left peacefully. The sit-in lasted nearly two hours. No arrests were made.
Wapato Mayor Juan Orozco was among those joining the sit-in. He called the board’s vote “totally preposterous,” and questioned its legitimacy.
“I think the board members, every single one of them, have turned their back on the children of Wapato and on the hard-working women and men of the Wapato School District,” he said.
During the protests outside, Meghan Ferguson, who teaches language arts at Wapato Middle School, said the district’s refusal to offer certified staff more money is unfair since administrators in some neighboring districts have given their employees huge raises.
“I don’t want to leave Wapato, but when I have other districts all around me offering to pay $20,000 to $30,000 more than I’m gonna make here, then I’m essentially being asked to choose between my two children at home, whom I love, and my children here in Wapato,” she said. “That’s unfair to ask me to do that.”
Many of those rallying echoed Ferguson. Much of the ire was directed at Superintendent Imler, with many in the crowd calling for her to resign.
Krista Goudy-Sutterlict, who teaches English at Wapato High School, said the district’s salary offer could be detrimental to the district’s students, especially those from troubled homes. If teachers go to other districts for more money, the relationships they’ve developed with those kids will suffer, she said.
“It takes time to build trust with kids that come from dysfunctional homes,” she said. “They have that trust built, and we’re going to push those teachers out the door? There’s no price tag on that. That’s what hurts me the most.”
Contract negotiations in the district started in June, and have grown contentious over salary increases for the upcoming school year.
Rocha said the district is offering its certified staff an average 3.1 percent pay increase, but said the district says that figure comes out to be an average 12 percent increase when other benefits are factored in. The union is asking for an average 18.5 percent pay raise.
Union members say the district has nearly $16 million to spend on salaries for the 2018-19 school year, and can afford to offer more.
The union has a clause in its contract that says certified staff can’t strike. Rocha said her union could face fines because of the clause, but added she’s been in contact with Washington Education Association representatives to make sure they’re on solid legal ground for a strike. The association represents state teachers.
An interpretation of Washington law by the state Attorney General’s Office says teachers have no legal right to strike, but it also says there’s no law on the books that will punish teachers for striking.
Roughly 20 strikes are pending or ongoing across Washington state. So far, the actions have already affected 78,000 students in districts where teachers have walked out, and could also disrupt the nearly 143,000 enrolled in districts where strikes have been authorized.
Disagreements at the bargaining table have arisen over what districts plan to do with the millions of dollars in additional funds they’ve been given by the state for the upcoming school year. Districts received that money because of the Legislature’s response to the McCleary decision, a 2012 state Supreme Court case in which justices found that Washington was failing to adequately fund K-12 education.
Teachers plan to participate in the Wapato Harvest Festival parade at 10 a.m. on Monday, which starts at Wapato High School.
Information from The Seattle Times was included in this report