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Strike: School union may walk Monday, district still hopes to negotiate

The 5,400 students attending Oak Harbor schools might not be going to school Monday and for an unknown number of days thereafter.

Classes may be canceled because the 300 members of the Public School Employees union voted Tuesday evening to go on strike effective Monday, Feb. 11.

The union represents school district support staff including bus drivers, maintenance workers, instructional assistants and food service staff.

School officials this weekend are researching options should the union strike occur.

Superintendent Rick Schulte said a final decision on whether to close schools is expected Sunday afternoon or evening.

“We don’t know yet,” he said Thursday. “Is it practical or a good idea? We’ll make the call Sunday. We’re still hoping we can get back to the negotiating table between now and Monday morning.”

Union members met at North Whidbey Middle School and voted 123 to 21 in favor of authorizing a strike. The employees have been working without a contract since Aug. 31. Negotiations have been taking place ever since. In December, a mediator from the state Public Employee Relations Commission was brought in to help with negotiations.

“What we’re really dealing with here is a deficit of trust,” said Tom Coe, a school district employee speaking for the union. “The last thing we want to do is strike.”

But, he said that a strike is the only way to get the school district’s attention. Union members feel they have lost the respect of the school district during the negotiating process.

Wages are the primary sticking point. Union members want wages brought closer to those enjoyed by workers in similar-sized school districts.

However, the sides seem to disagree on what those average wages really are.

The school district’s current offer provides a 4.5 percent wage increase over three years in addition to the state mandated cost of living adjustment.

For the current school year, the COLA stands at 3.6 percent and for next school year, it’s 3.2 percent.

Schulte said there is a $300,000 difference between the school district’s proposal and the union proposal. According to the school district’s figures, the average Oak Harbor PSE worker earns 49 cents per hour below the average in similar-sized school districts. If the contract offer is accepted, the Oak Harbor average would go up by $1.09 per hour.

Before the strike vote Tuesday, union members rejected the latest contract offer with 120 voting against approval and 67 voting for approval.

Lengthy negotiations between the school district and the union aren’t anything new. The past two contracts periods, negotiations dragged on for months after the old agreement expired.

But such an imminent strike has never occurred during Schulte’s long tenure. “It’s the closest I’ve ever come in 21 years,” he said. “The level of anger is very high.”

Union members believe that support staff has already taken the brunt of recent school district cutbacks. Last year, the school board approved closing Clover Valley Elementary. That was part of the $2.5 million worth of cutbacks, including a number of support jobs, the school district made in an effort to come up with a balanced budget.

Schulte said that additional cuts could take place this year.

Union and school officials spent the latter part of this week preparing for the potential strike.

As of Friday, the superintendent was hopeful that the strike threat for Monday was a last-ditch bargaining effort.

“The threat of a strike is more important than an actual strike,” Schulte said.

But it appears to be more than just a threat, judging from union activity. PSE members are busy forming teams to picket in front of every school district building, Coe said. Since it looks like it’s going to be cold early next week, there could be burn barrels placed at picketing areas.

Meanwhile, school officials are busy researching whether it is practical to try to keep schools open in the face of a lack of bus drivers, janitors, cooks and other support personnel.

The Oak Harbor School Board held a special meeting Thursday evening to consider a resolution in reaction to the strike threat and gave Schulte the authority to do what’s necessary.

The resolution, which passed by a 3-0 margin, gives Schulte the authority to close schools; prohibit any striking employees from accessing school district property; suspend health insurance payments for striking employees; and authorizes Schulte to hire temporary employees. It also states that “it is unlawful in the State of Washington for public school employees to strike.”

School Board members David McCool, Peter Hunt and David Sherman voted for the resolution. Corey Johnson and Gary Wallin recused themselves from decisions surrounding the union because they have spouses who are PSE members.

In a written statement Friday, board member Hunt said, “We are hopeful that a responsible solution to this dilemma can be reached before Monday, but the school board is united and firm in its resolve to face up to our financial responsibilities and make a stand against an illegal PSE strike. No responsible leader could do otherwise.”

Union members grabbed their pickets and stood on street corners surrounding the school district’s administration building during the school board meeting.

There may be another negotiating session tomorrow, the day before the strike is scheduled to begin.

“We’re hoping negotiating teams will get together between now and then and reach an agreement,” Schulte said.

However, Coe said union members are suspicious of the administration and want to see some information showing they are coming up with a proposal closer to the union’s position before they are willing to meet again.

He said if the meeting is an attempt to approve something for expediency, then the union isn’t inclined to meet Sunday.

The union wants to work with the school district to resolve the contract issues, Coe said. In addition, they would like to see a salary commission to form in the third year of the contract. That commission would be comprised of administrators and union members to work out salary issues before hand.

He added that the union membership do not take the idea of a strike lightly and understand what effects such an action would have on students and parents. However, he emphasized the union is prepared for a lengthy strike.

“We planning for the worst but hoping for the best,” Coe said.

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