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Seattle teacher strike sends parents scrambling

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Posted at 9:32 AM, Sep 09, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-09 12:32:34-04

SEATTLE (AP) — Thousands of Seattle teachers hoisted signs and marched on picket lines Wednesday after negotiations broke down and they walked out on the first day of school.

The strike in Washington state's largest school district sent parents scrambling to find alternative options, including working from home, swapping care with other parents or signing up for other programs. The city parks department expanded before- and after-school programs to all-day offerings amid the strike in the district serving about 53,000 students.

It came after Seattle Public Schools and the teachers union failed to reach an agreement on their contract Tuesday night. Both sides remain far apart on key issues, including pay raises, teacher evaluations and the length of the school day.

The district has offered a pay increase of nearly 9 percent over three years, and the union countered with a 10.5 percent increase over two years. Phyllis Campano, the union's vice president, said the district came back with a proposal that the union "couldn't take seriously."

Amanda Poch, a 31-year-old kindergarten teacher at West Seattle Elementary, said she was "incredibly disappointed" that talks broke down.

"We'll hold out as long as it takes," she told The Associated Press on Wednesday morning as she pieced together picket signs that said "Fair Contract Now" and "On Strike."

The strike — the first in the Seattle district in 30 years — comes at a time when state officials are under increasing pressure to boost funding for K-12 education.

The state Supreme Court is fining Washington $100,000 a day, saying lawmakers have failed to adequately fund education for the state's 1 million schoolchildren.

Lawmakers have allocated billions of dollars toward public schools, but critics say that's not enough to meet the requirements in the state Constitution that education be the Legislature's "paramount duty."

The Washington Supreme Court decided in 2012 that state funding for education is not adequate. The justices said the state was relying too much on local dollars to make up for a small state budget for education. Overreliance on local dollars worsens inequity between schools because districts with higher property values can raise money more easily.

Seattle isn't the only district facing a teacher strike. Educators in Pasco in southeast Washington have voted not to return to the classroom despite a court order to end the walkout. They decided Monday to remain on strike, idling 17,000 students in a dispute over pay and curriculum. Classes also were canceled Wednesday.

Rich Wood, a spokesman for the Washington Education Association, said the strikes were mainly about local issues not tied to the larger debate about funding.

"The negotiations are about meeting the needs of students in school districts," Wood said.

He noted that teacher strikes are relatively rare in Washington's 295 school districts, with the last major one in Tacoma in 2011.

Members of the Seattle Education Association, which represents about 5,000 teachers and support staff, said they will picket at all 97 schools Wednesday.

Theo Moriarty, 39, said he plans to pick up his sign and picket in front of Hamilton International Middle School, where he teaches seventh-grade language arts.

"We didn't want to strike, and it seems to be the only way to have a dialogue with our senior administration," Moriarty said.

The Seattle School Board voted Tuesday night to authorize the superintendent to take legal action against striking teachers. In a statement, the district said it hopes "talks can resume and agreement can be reached to allow our students to start school."

Catherine Beard, whose two daughters attend McDonald International School, said she plans to visit the picket lines to support the teachers.

"I feel like the teachers that are there, like all teachers, are not in it for the paycheck. They're in it for the love of teaching," Beard said.

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Associated Press writers Phuong Le in Seattle and Nicholas K. Geranios in Spokane contributed to this report.