Tacoma teachers: District letter derailed strike vote

Tacoma teachers: District letter derailed strike vote »Play Video
Andy Coons, Tacoma Education Association president, blames a letter from the school district for misleading teachers and causing a smaller-than-expected turnout at a meeting to vote on the contract.
TACOMA, Wash. - Teachers in the Tacoma School District headed to class Thursday without a contract - and with the threat of a strike still looming.

The first day of school was clouded with questions - and accusations, with some blaming a last-minute letter from the school district for a smaller-than-expected turnout when teachers voted whether to authorize a strike.

As a result, people say they didn't know whether to greet teachers by saying, 'I'm sorry' or 'Congratulations.'"

Less than three dozen votes kept teachers from approving a strike.

That left some parents and students relieved and apprehensive at the same time.

"I heard there was going to be a strike. I got really upset, but I'm glad they decided not to," said one student.

Just a class size worth of union members made the difference.

Andy Coons, Tacoma Education Association president, said, "Twenty eight more 'yes' votes at that meeting last night, and we would have been on strike today. That's how close it was."

Ninety percent of the Tacoma Education Association members in attendance voted to strike, but about 300 members didn't show.

A union by-law requires at least 80 percent of the union membership to authorize the strike, and the final tally was 77.2 percent in favor of striking, Coons said.

Coons questioned whether a school district letter sent out late Wednesday kept members away from the meeting.

He says the letter was so positive it prompted the principal at Stanley Elementary School to tell her staff they didn't need to go vote because the issues appeared settled.

"The tone of the letter made it sound as if a settlement had been made or was close," says Coons. "And I believe it was because of that letter that we did not have the turnout at our general membership meeting last night."

The district disagrees.

"Read it - it's clear that the two sides did not have a tentative agreement," says Tacoma School District spokesman Dan Voelpel.

The two sides still disagree on class size, pay and teacher transfers. But teachers plan to keep the diferences out of the classroom.

"They're professionals. They're going to focus on the kids," says Coons.

Now its back to the bargaining table. If an agreement isn't reached, teachers could take another strike vote, keeping students and parents in limbo.

"I'm relieved that she's in school today. But at the same time I worry, and I'm up all night. Are they going to be in school tomorrow? Are they going to strike tonight? Are they going to strike newxt week? Are they going to strike in three weeks?'" said one frustrated parent.

Teachers plan to meet again on Sept. 12 - and that's either to go over a new tentative contract or to take another strike authorization vote.