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Camas teachers go on strike; Evergreen and Battle Ground could follow suit Wednesday

Monday would have been the first day of the school year in Camas, but the district has confirmed classes are canceled. The other two districts start two days later.

CAMAS, Wash. — Hundreds of teachers in the Camas School District officially went on strike Monday morning, cancelling what would have otherwise been the first day of the school year. Teachers were out marching and holding signs around 9 a.m. 

The union representing Camas School District teachers announced Sunday evening that it would follow through on plans to strike and confirmed there would be no classes on Monday.

The announcement came after a last-ditch round of bargaining on Sunday, which the Camas Education Association said ended when "the district refused to make commitments to reasonable class sizes or equitable funding for music, PE, and libraries." The district said the union had presented a new proposal with higher salaries and lower class sizes than previously requested, and said it was disappointed that the union is "regressing."

The union said its members and supporters will gather at a Camas school board meeting Monday evening.

"We understand that being out of school for another day and however long this takes is a big inconvenience for people, but we think that what’s most important is getting kids back in the classroom in a way that they’re having an equal access to resources with teachers who are getting paid what they should be paid," said Kate Gooding, a teacher at Camas High School.

KGW also spoke with a student who showed up at the picket line to support the teachers.

"You can’t really get a one-on-one teacher student conversation with there being like 30 other kids in your class when you’re all just smooshed in and they don’t have enough seats," said Brynn Legeyt, a senior at Camas High School.

Ahead of the strike, KGW spoke with Mark Gardner Monday morning. He's a teacher at Hayes Freedom High School. 

“Our top priorities are really centered on using our contracts to provide equitable access to things like music and P.E. across all of our schools so that the patrons in our community and the kids in our community, it’s not kind of roll of the dice to whether or not they have access to those kinds of programs," Gardner said. "Supporting smaller class sizes, especially at the elementary, kindergarten level."

Gardner also said that the union didn't come to the table asking for a raise.

"We came asking for the district to just honor the commitment they already had, which was a cost-of-living adjustment that was in our contract in 2020," Gardner said.

The district and union have been bargaining since May, according to updates on the district's website. The district said its last, best and final offer included raising salaries in 2023 by 5.7% and in 2024 by 5.9%. The highest-paid teachers would earn over $118,363 in the coming school year, the district said, adding that the union's proposal would have put the highest salaries at $121,653 for the coming year.

Union leaders have pointed to wages as the biggest hold-up, but a document posted to the union's website also lists lower class sizes, better work hour protections, improved student caseloads, and protected curriculum planning time as priorities, along with the push for equitable distribution of funding for music, libraries and PE.

In a FAQ section on its webpage about the strike, the district said it only has 150 substitute teachers, making it impossible to keep schools open during a strike. The union represents about 450 teachers. The district said it will need to hold make-up days at some point during the coming school year for any days missed due to the strike.

Athletics will not be impacted by a strike, according to the FAQ, because coaches are on a separate contract. However, childcare and preschool would be impacted, with all preschools closed.

It's unclear exactly how long the strike could last. Camas teachers have said they'll strike until a deal is reached.

Strikes loom for Evergreen and Battle Ground

Evergreen Public Schools and Battle Ground Public Schools are also both still negotiating new contracts with their respective unions and facing threats of strikes, but the first day of school is scheduled for Wednesday rather than Monday in those two districts, giving negotiators two more days to reach a deal.

The Evergreen Education Association voted last week to authorize a strike, giving the union's bargaining team the authority to call for a strike at its own discretion. Union officials said teachers were asking for more support for students with special needs and more time for educator planning, as well as increased pay. The union represents about 1,650 teachers from the Evergreen district, which serves east Vancouver.

"We are going to keep bargaining as long as possible," said Kristie Peak, President of the Evergreen Education Association, "We are offering every day this week. We stayed a little later (Monday) night, and are prepared to stay as long as we need to try and get our kids back in school. We want them in school."

The Evergreen teachers union held an eight-day strike at the start of the school year in 2018. Several other Southwest Washington districts went on strike at the same time including Longview, Washougal, Vancouver, Hockinson and Ridgefield. Camas was poised to joined them, but reached a deal two days before school started.

Evergreen Public Schools executive director of communications Craig Birnbach told KGW on Sunday the bargaining teams met Friday and Saturday and will meet again on Monday, referring KGW to an earlier statement that said the district's goal is to reach a resolution before the start of school on Wednesday.

Battle Ground Public Schools said in a statement Sunday that the bargaining teams will continue negotiating on Monday, and that its latest proposal would decrease class sizes and employee caseloads while increasing entry-level pay. The district said it still hopes to reach an agreement and is still preparing for the school year to begin on Wednesday.

A union official told KGW Sunday that Battle Ground educators would have a general membership meeting Tuesday evening where they plan to either ratify a contract agreement or vote to strike. 

KGW spoke with Battle Ground Education Association President, Kim Bettger, Monday evening. 

"We are going to vote ... are (the members) happy with where we are with bargaining? Or do they think we need a little bit more time?" she said, "Our ultimate goal is — we want to be with the students. We love being with the students. And we want to start school on Wednesday, but ... where do we have to draw the line?"

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