Riverview teachers walk out

LOWER VALLEY - In the midst of giving the Washington Assessment of Student Learning to their pupils, Riverview School District teachers walked off their jobs Tuesday, along with Seattle, Issaquah, Enumclaw and Tahoma teacher associations, to protest how the state Legislature has handled educational funding for the next biennium.

As a result of the walkout, classes were canceled Tuesday for the district's six schools. Administrators had been notified in advance and had sent letters home with students April 27 to announce the planned strike. WASL tests, which are given to fourth-, seventh- and 10th-graders, were prolonged another day, as was the school year.

The purpose of the walkout, according to Mandy Balsiger, president of the Riverview Education Association, was to educate the public.

"This is an action taken against the Legislature, and we feel that [taxpayers] don't realize that when they strongly passed I-732 and I-728 ... [they] felt that they helped us. But the reality is they are not being fully funded. So we want the Legislature to hear us," she said.

Balsiger said she wanted parents to know that the 167 members of the teachers association were not taking action against Riverview children but, instead, were walking out for the students.

"We want them to have the best teachers and the best programs," she said.

The teachers picketed in the early morning and late afternoon at various locations in Duvall and Carnation, holding signs with messages such as, "All means all," and, "Don't defy our vote."

Teachers also attended a rally in Seattle and went door to door at district homes with leaflets explaining the association's stance. They will continue to picket this week, before and after school.

Riverview School District officials don't support the walkout, but that doesn't mean they aren't sympathetic.

"We don't agree with the job action that they are taking, but we agree with the principals upon which they're doing it," Riverview Assistant Superintendent Michael Green said. "There's a need for the Legislature to continue to fund education at current levels and follow the mandate of the voters as expressed in I-728 and I-732 to enhance funding." Classified personnel were not part of the walkout.

The strikes are a reaction to the state House of Representatives' budget that was unveiled April 27. Others versions of the 2002-2003 budget have been proposed by the Senate and Gov. Gary Locke.

The House budget would provide funding for the voter-approved initiatives 732 and 728 - designed to provide a cost-of-living adjustment for teachers and lower class sizes, respectively - by cutting other educational programs. Union members say this is the wrong way to fund the initiatives and is contrary to how the measures were worded.

"We're very disappointed. We've put a lot of time into the programs we do have," Balsiger explained. "The expectation of the voters is we have smaller class sizes, and the reality is we will have very little change next year because they are just taking money that we have now and putting it into I-728 - basically taking money from one pocket and putting it into another.

"The budget is basically just supplanting funds we already have for programs and putting it in for I-728, so we're gaining very little and the actual initiative mandated that the money not be supplanted," she added.

Typical class sizes at Riverview elementary schools are about 27 students, and at Cedarcrest High School in Duvall the size of some classes has exceeded recommended levels of 32 students to one teacher.

The Riverview Education Association is part of the Washington Education Association, a professional organization and union for K-12 teachers. WEA spokesman Rich Wood said the organization supports the Riverview teachers' walkout and other walkouts in the Seattle area.

"This is to remind [the Legislature] that they should follow the will of the voters, who clearly said they want to invest in public schools," he said. "That's what this is all about. We feel they are breaking their commitments to public education.

"At a time when we have higher academic standards than ever before, we need to be able to attract and keep great educators for our kids," he added. "We have a teacher shortage and a compensation crisis, and [the Legislature is] just making it worse by not even fully funding the cost-of-living increases that voters approved. And that was a very modest initiative that said, 'Geez, teachers' [salaries] should keep up with inflation.'" Under I-732, teachers' pay would increase 3.7 percent the first year and 3.1 percent the following year.

Wood said with the small salaries teachers receive in Washington, they and other school employees can make more money working in the private sector or out of state, and often quit to do just that.

He feels the Legislature has done nothing to address the outflux of teachers, and he added that if changes are not made to educational funding, school districts throughout the state could vote to strike again. There are currently 70,000 WEA members across the state in about 300 districts.

In addition to Riverview and other school districts that walked out Tuesday, the Stanwood Education Association, in the Skagit Valley, will walk out today, and Edmonds teachers have planned a walkout for Monday, May 7. Other school districts' union members who aren't striking will participate in protest activities, such as attending rallies, handing out leaflets and e-mailing or sending letters to members of the Legislature.

This is the second walkout aimed at legislators in the past few weeks. Members of the Washington Federation of State Employees have staged similar rolling strikes across the state, with workers picketing April 20 at Echo Glen Children's Center in Snoqualmie.

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