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Island teachers march in Olympia

Whidbey Island education supporters joined thousands of their colleagues in Olympia Tuesday for the Day of Action mass rally, adding their voices to the call for stable education funding.

Estimates put the number of supporters around 20,000, making it the largest rally in Olympia in more than 10 years.

For attendants from Oak Harbor the day started with a 7 a.m. send-off breakfast at the high school. The high school jazz band played and the cheerleaders led a special “Support Schools” cheer to get people jazzed up for the event.

Oak Harbor Education Association co-president June Zacharias was in charge of 50 to 60 picketers who took shifts with placards in Oak Harbor. The bright pink “Save 728+732” signs were a good choice, with heavy fog shrouding the supporters along Highway 20 most of the day.

OHEA co-president Peter Szalai joined the group on the bus, which included school staff, administrators, and parents.

“It’s great to have the active support of the school district, including the superintendent,” Szalai said. Rick Schulte, schools superintendent, was seated halfway back on the bus.

Szalai said the group represented a broad-based coalition sharing one goal, protecting the gains made with Initiatives 728 and 732.

Also on board were Oak Harbor High School cheerleaders Megan Longland and Alicia Groberg, who came along to support their teachers. All students in the Oak Harbor school district got the day off, as the district approved the use of a “snow day” to cover the shutdown.

The girls wore T-shirts brightly decorated with pro-education slogans that they had stayed up late the night before creating.

Longland had been to Olympia in support of education before, but it was Groberg’s first time.

“I had no idea there would be this many people,” she said on the bus afterwards.

Chartered buses and carpools from Oak Harbor and Coupeville school districts crawled into Olympia around 11 a.m. after a three-hour drive. Although the plan called for being shuttled from the parking lot to the staging area before a mile and a half march to the capitol building, there were so many buses and people that Olympia police made the buses stop far from their destination.

Greeters from the sponsoring Washington Education Association gave rally participants bright blue plastic ponchos emblazoned with the slogan of the day, “Keep the Commitment” as they prepared for the long walk.

The Coupeville School District was represented by two dozen supporters from the community. The teachers had voted almost unanimously to keep the schools open, rather than close to attend the rally, saying the state of schools was a community problem, not just a school problem.

Joining the community members were Superintendent Bill Myhr, eight staff members and two board members. Each wore a placard telling which teacher they were representing.

“We received dozens of compliments on our placards,” Myhr said. “It was uplifting, and a positive reinforcement of our plan to involve the community.”

He felt the rally overall went extremely well.

The 100-plus members of the Oak Harbor group carrying pro-education signs were quickly swallowed up in the sea of people flowing toward the rally site across from the capitol building.

Debbie Longland, a fifth-grade teacher at Crescent Elementary, had been to Olympia five years ago for an all-night vigil in support of schools, but it was nothing like this.

She said the long bus ride there and back, and the muddy rally site was worth it to get their message out.

“Too many times as educators we let them do this to us,” she said, referring to Gov. Gary Locke’s proposed cuts to education funding.

The Day of Action had been in the works for 18 months. Originally it was planned as a general, statewide collective effort by the WEA to lobby the Legislature for better cost-of-living allowances, Szalai said, but Locke’s education-chopping budget proposal this month sent the organization scrambling to refocus.

“We shifted to protecting the initiatives,” Szalai said.

With Locke’s proposal, at least making signs for the rally got a whole lot easier.

“Un-Locke Education Funding,” was popular, as was “Don’t Decaffeinate Our COLA.” One sign asked, “When is Tim Eyman going to sponsor an education initiative?”

The sign-waving ponchoed supporters quieted down to hear the rally speakers, including National Education Association President Reg Weaver, Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and actor James Avery.

Weaver spoke with a fervor reminiscent of the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, as he drove home the point, “Free, quality education for every child is not a pipe dream — we can do it.”

Chopp’s speech was a long list of thank yous to the teachers in his life, including the school nurse who cleaned the wax out of his ears so he could hear.

Some supporters grumbled that they would have preferred promises over praise.

Actor James Avery, best known for his role as Uncle Phil on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air sit-com, which starred Will Smith, spoke passionately about the role public education played in his life.

“I was taught early, everything you need to know is in a book—go read it,” he said.

Avery joked that California benefits from Washington’s poor teacher pay, referring to the number of teachers who leave the state for higher paying jobs in California and elsewhere.

Back on the bus, Alice Mikos, Oak Harbor Middle School library media specialist, reflected on the active day, and the speakers.

“I liked the variety of approaches,” she said. She particularly liked the point which was made that education funding and the status of the initiatives was a legal issue.

“This is the law,” she said. “We’re just asking them to uphold it.”

Mikos and Longland talked about the financial bind teachers are in when they are expected to spend their own money to keep certified or gain advanced degrees, but they can only go so far on the pay scale.

For example, Mikos said she has recently spent $8,000 for library science training at the University of Washington.

“Teachers can spend tens of thousands of dollars of their own money to get up the pay scale,” Longland said, although they may never recover that amount in wages.

For example, according to state salary allocation tables for certificated instructional staff, a teacher with 10 years experience and a Bachelor of Arts degree would earn $38,477 a year. A master’s degree, costing thousand of dollars and hundreds of hours of study, would raise that to $42,964.

One of the educators’ main concerns is that if Locke freezes their cost of living allowance, their pay will actually go down.

Szalai said Tuesdays’ Day of Action was not the end of the battle for education funding.

“This is the beginning of the ‘Season of Action’,” he said.

Szalai said education supporters need to continue to lobby Olympia on behalf of education.

“Change happens because people put their feet to the pavement,” Szalai said.

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at mmiller@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611

Community Events, April 2014

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