Judge Scott Collier sided with the Battle Ground School District on Friday and said Washington law is very clear that public employees are not allowed to strike. He went on to add that this was supported by multiple court rulings, attorney general opinions, and more recently superior court decisions in nearby Cowlitz and Thurston counties.
“It’d be naive of me to look at 20 other judges ruling this way and I have a contrary opinion out there by myself,” said Collier. “I’m not out there by myself.”
Battle Ground Superintendent Mark Ross had little to say after the hearing except that the district’s priority is to start classes immediately.
“We just want to get our kids back in school,” he said.
The district told the judge the strike is causing irreparable harm, especially to low income families. They argued it was affecting students who rely on free and reduced meals, as well as disrupting routines for special education students. Bill Coats, the district’s attorney, claimed that 95 students have already left the district because of the strike, either transferring to a neighboring district or opting to try home school.
“We need the court’s assistance,” Coats said. “We will continue to work hard to bargain in good faith, but this is likely not something we’ll be able to settle in mediation.”
After the ruling, Battle Ground Education Association Vice President Marina Heinz said their bargaining team would return to negotiations Friday afternoon. A vote at an all member meeting Friday night will determine whether the union will comply with the judge’s orders.
“The team is going to continue to bargain today to reach that settlement so teachers will stay in Battle Ground,” Heinz said.
Heinz expressed disappointment in recent action by the school board and the district, but said the union’s membership will stand strong.
“This is the battle Battle Ground has been waiting for,” she told OPB. “At this point, I don’t see our educators backing down.”
That led to an unprecedented bargaining situation where nearly all 295 districts opened salary negotiations with their teacher unions at the same time. It also led to disputes over how much pay should increase. And at one point, almost every district in Clark County was on strike.
Battle Ground remains the only district in southwest Washington on strike, and only one of two in the state without a settled contract. Evergreen and Longview students returned to class this week after agreements were reached.
The continuing strike in Battle Ground has meant teachers like Stephan Henry are out on the sidewalk waving picket signs instead of grading papers.
“I’d much rather be in my classroom,” said Henry, who has taught drama at Battle Ground High School for nine years.
He said teachers are just asking to be paid a fair and equitable wage – and a comparable one to neighboring districts. Many unions in Clark County have settled double-digit percentage increases.
“That is where we want to be,” said Henry pointing toward the campus from the road. “But this is where we have to be.”