As a teachers strike in Battle Ground enters its third week, hundreds of people filled a school board meeting to capacity Monday night.
For more than two hours, dozens of people spoke before the board, with a large majority in support of the teachers.
“I’ve watched five of my children go through Battle Ground School District,” said Bill Mason, a business owner and resident of Yacolt for the last 40 years. “All had great teachers.”
“I’ve talked to several people that are literally thinking of going to other districts because they can’t afford to stay here,” Mason added. “That concerns me.”
Battle Ground remains the only district in southwest Washington on strike. Evergreen and Longview students returned to class this week after agreements were reached over the weekend.
In Washington this summer, school districts opened up contract negotiations after the Legislature earmarked more than $1 billion to increase teacher pay. In 2012, the state Supreme Court ordered the Washington legislature to fully fund schools.
“Both sides continue to disagree on the monies that are available for teacher salaries, which has kept the bargaining process from moving forward,” Superintendent Mark Ross updated the board at the start of the meeting.
The district says the two bargaining teams are $4.7 million, or 8 percent, apart in their offers. The district says the union’s latest offer would increase salaries 19.6 percent this year. Ross says the raises teachers are asking for will leave the district with a budget deficit in the next two to three years, and could result in additional budget deficits and possible staffing cuts.
Some people expressed frustration with the district’s negotiations, while others called for school board members to resign.
“You should be ashamed of yourselves,” Battle Ground resident Katie Aguilar said to the board. “This is what the absence of leadership looks like.”
Heather Williams, a cellular molecular biologist, returned to Battle Ground three years ago to teach science at River HomeLink.
“I thought I wanted to come back here and teach, and I just don’t know if I do,” said an emotional Williams. “I wanted to give back to the community I was raised in."
Other people criticized the board’s decision on Monday to request a fact-finding hearing from the state’s Public Employment Relations Commission. That legal process could delay reaching an agreement for at least a week.
After the crowd erupted in applause during public comment, the board eventually moved the meeting to a private room.
There, the board unanimously passed a resolution that would suspend teacher salaries if the strike continued past September 17. Board president Ken Root noted that the resolution does allow striking teachers to keep their health benefits.
“If there’s anything positive about this, that’s the one positive is that we’re not going to have our teachers pay COBRA out of their pocket,” said Root.
Mediated negotiations between the district and the union were to take place Tuesday at the PERC offices in Olympia. Ross said that the earliest they could meet with a fact-finder is Wednesday. According to state law, the fact-finder then has five days to investigate the matter, and 30 days after that to issue a non-binding recommendation.