Kent School District teachers plan to strike on Thursday, Aug. 25, the scheduled first day of school, unless the union and district leaders reach a late-hour contract settlement by Wednesday night (after press time).
“It was what we anticipated,” said Kent Education Association (teachers union) President Tim Martin in a Monday night phone interview about the vote. “If there is not a tentative agreement by Wednesday, we will strike on Thursday.”
Martin said as many as 1,700 teachers of the 2,000-member union participated in the vote with about 95% in favor of the strike. A majority also voted no confidence in Superintendent Israel Vela and the five-member Kent School Board.
Teachers picketed earlier this month outside of a Kent School District leadership retreat at Kent-Meridian High School to let people know contract talks remain far apart.
Martin said the main issues are mental health support for students, competitive salaries, lower class sizes for teachers and smaller caseloads for specialists such as special education teachers.
Because of a lack of progress in talks, Martin said the union asked district negotiators to go to mediation, but the district declined. The union then filed for mediation, which will start on Tuesday. A mediator will try to help the two sides reach an agreement.
Martin said the district also has gone into mediation with three other groups whose contracts are up, including a new IT union, office workers and custodians.
“The teachers want things to be better for the kids, themselves and the community,” Martin said.
He said students need more support from counselors and social workers as well as smaller class sizes. Teachers want higher salaries to help retain current staff and attract new teachers.
A Kent School District spokesperson declined to answer any questions from the Kent Reporter about the contract talks.
“The school district cannot provide comments on this ongoing process,” said Faith Sisley, director of communication and public affairs, in an Aug. 10 email.
The Kent Reporter has reached out to the district again for response to the strike vote, but has not received a response.
School Board President Leslie Hamada said as a board member she cannot comment on bargaining.
“As a community member it deeply saddens me,” Hamada said in an Aug. 22 email about the strike vote. “As a board director and president I hope an agreement is reached soon. All board directors value all our educators highly.”
Hamada had the following reaction to the union’s other vote.
“Personally, it hurts to see a no confidence vote on the board and superintendent,” she said. “Personally, I am laser focused on the kids and all our staff as I have been from day one.”
Martin said contract talks won’t last long on Wednesday because there is a Kent School Board meeting that evening. He said many teachers plan to attend the meeting dressed in their “red for ed” shirts.
Negotiations between the district and the Kent Education Association (KEA) didn’t even start until July, a couple of months later than past contract talks, Martin said in an earlier interview.
“The KEA asked the district to come to the table, which we typically do in May,” Martin said. “We’ve been ready. The district postponed. They said we could just do it in August.”
Martin said negotiations in the past have taken as many as 39 to 43 meetings to reach an agreement. He said the first talks were July 12 and have continued for about twice a week.
The union and district reached a last-minute settlement in 2018 to avoid a strike. Teachers were on strike for about three weeks in 2009, which delayed the start of school until Sept. 15.