Seattle schools closed for third day by teachers' strike

By Mike Rosenberg
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Teacher grabs a sign before walking the picket line as teachers strike outside Roosevelt High School in Seattle, Washington

A teacher grabs a sign before walking the picket line as teachers strike outside Roosevelt High School in Seattle, Washington September 9, 2015. REUTERS/Matt Mills McKnight

By Mike Rosenberg

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Seattle public schools remained closed for a third day on Friday due to a teachers' strike that has idled 53,000 students and caused childcare headaches for working parents, with no word on whether stalled contract talks might resume over the weekend.

Representatives for the Seattle Education Association and the school district met separately with state mediators on Thursday and Friday.

Direct contract negotiations were to resume on Saturday, the two sides said.

District officials had said they were waiting for the teachers to agree to return to the bargaining table. Some teachers, meanwhile, voiced frustration at an apparent lack of movement toward a settlement.

"I think people are discouraged that no negotiations have happened for two days," high school teacher Carol Faust said. "I really thought they'd be negotiating around the clock."

Some 5,000 instructors and support staff walked off the job and onto picket lines on Wednesday, which was supposed to have been the first day of classes, after extended talks collapsed the night before in disagreement over wages, hours and performance evaluations.

The strike, which has forced the shutdown of all of Seattle's nearly 100 public schools, marked the first contract-related disruption of classes in three decades for the largest public education system in the Pacific Northwest.

The strike also left parents scrambling to place children, who should have been resuming classes after the summer break.

Seattle’s Mayor Ed Murray said the city was opening additional community centers that will be able to accommodate as many as 3,000 children if the strike continues Monday.

One of the teachers' chief grievances is that they have received no cost-of-living raise in six years despite surging living expenses, particularly for housing, that have been fueled largely by swift growth in the city's high-tech sector.

The walkout comes at a time of increased scrutiny of education spending in the state. Washington's state Supreme Court last month fined the state $100,000 for every day it failed to present a court-ordered plan for fully funding public schools..

At the urging of union leaders, striking teachers traded their picket signs on Friday for community service projects in commemoration of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States 14 years ago.

The district's latest offer to the union included $62 million in pay raises, staff increases for special education and 20 minutes of added instructional time after two years, district spokesman Stacy Howard said. She said the union was demanding $172 million in increased wages and benefits.

Union spokesman Rich Wood accused the district of trying to foist more hours on teachers without an equitable pay increase.

"The Seattle School Board's last proposal called for making teachers work an additional 20 minutes every day and to pay a typical teacher approximately 63 cents for that time," he said.

He added that the district stands to gain $55 million a year in revenues, over and above its current budget, from higher funding levels approved by state lawmakers and a special property tax levy.

(Writing and additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson and Steve Gorman; Editing by Eric Walsh and Bill Trott)