Public schools across Washington state are starting their school years this week, but in Camas, it may be the start of a prolonged dispute.
About 450 educators staged a strike on Monday, prompting the Camas School District to cancel Monday classes and delay what would have been the first day of school.
District administrators and the union representing teachers have been unable to agree on a new contract. The two sides have been negotiating for more than three months, but still don’t agree on three main issues: pay, classroom sizes and funding for programs like music and physical education.
Both district officials and teachers said they can’t recall Camas’ teachers ever going on strike in the past.
“We’re usually able to come to a conclusion,” said Katie Levnick, a Camas High School chemistry teacher and representative with the Camas Education Association, the union for teachers and other faculty.
People clad in red clothes in support of the union spent hours on Monday marching outside the district’s elementary, middle and high schools. They waved picket signs from the sidewalks while cars drove by, often chirping their horns in support.
To district officials, the strike is an aggressive measure. School leaders are considering filing an injunction in court in a bid to end the strike, spokesperson Doreen McKercher said.
In Washington state, it’s illegal for public employees — including teachers — to go on strike. Judges have ruled against teacher strikes in the past but rarely impose any penalties.
“I would say there is a decent likelihood that we would file an injunction,” McKercher told OPB.
District officials contend that the union is asking for too much money and hasn’t wavered from their initial demands regarding teacher pay.
“The main message is that we are trying to offer increases for our staff that are sustainable,” McKercher said. “We have an incredible teaching staff. They are seasoned and highly qualified. And that comes at a cost... but we also need to look at the sustainability of our finances.”
Both sides acknowledge that the district currently has a healthy budget. To union members, that serves their point that the district can afford to meet wage demands, but district officials say that can change.
McKercher noted that the district laid off staff last spring and made other budget cuts. She said the district has a three-year plan to have a reserve of 8% of its total budget, which would cover a month of salaries, she said.
Levenick called that an outdated negotiating tactic. She said the district put forth the same explanation at the last negotiation four years ago.
“And four years later, the reserve is bigger than it was when they said they couldn’t afford it. So we’re not willing to take ‘the sky is falling’ with the numbers,” Levenick said.
It’s not clear how long the strike could last. According to McKercher, the two sides are still communicating and hoping to come to an agreement.
Meanwhile, faculty at two other large school districts in Southwest Washington could also go on strike this week: Evergreen and Battle Ground.
The union representing Evergreen faculty voted last week to authorize a strike. The union representing faculty in Battle Ground plans to hold a meeting on Tuesday where they could authorize a strike or sign a new contract.