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Bellevue teachers on verge of strike

As September draws closer, teachers in the Bellevue School District (BSD) are bracing for what could be their first strike in years. More than 1,000 teachers in the Eastside district are prepared to picket if they do not have a tentative contract agreement by Sept. 2, the first day of school. Their current contract ended on Aug. 1.

During a union meeting in June, Bellevue teachers voted for the strike with 94 percent in favor. Their main point of contention — on top of salary and benefits — is dissatisfaction over the district’s new Web-based curriculum, paid for with a $2 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The new syllabus, an attempt to standardize courses from math to social studies among Bellevue’s 30 schools, has been criticized by teachers for its “one-size-fits-all” model, which tends to bore ambitious students while losing others who cannot keep up. In addition, the e-curriculum inhibits student creativity and learning diversity within the classroom, teachers say.

Washington Education Association (WEA) President Mary Lindquist, who has spoken to Bellevue employees about the new curriculum, said that few educators favor the model.

“Teachers are pretty strongly opposed to this,” she said, adding that Bellevue is the first district in Washington to mandate a Web-based curriculum.

The WEA president emphasized that, in her experience, teachers do not threaten to strike unless they are “dead serious” about the reasons.

“Teachers, are not rabble-rousers. They take a strike-vote very reluctantly and seriously. Given the level of support this strike has and the conversations I’ve had with staff members, they are dead serious about the impact of this curriculum on their students.”

According to Ann Oxrieder, director of communications for BSD, it is not the curriculum’s online format, but rather its standardized approach to learning that has earned the ire of Bellevue teachers.

“The Web-based curriculum is like any curriculum, it’s just housed on the Web instead of in three-ring binders,” she said. “It’s how much control teachers have to change the curriculum which is the issue.”

Bellevue’s former superintendent, Mike Riley, initiated the push toward a more standardized curriculum several years ago, according to Oxrieder. His main motive was to ensure grade-level consistency within the district’s 20-plus schools.

“He set out for a common curriculum to give kids the same experiences in every school,” Oxrieder said.

Developing Internet technology provided an easy means to this end. Last year, the district mandated the Web-based curriculum that had been gradually working its way into Bellevue schools. The outcome, however, has disheartened many teachers.

“They don’t think [the online curriculum] is the most effective way to lead a classroom,” Lindquist said of her conversations with teachers. “They understand that students don’t all learn at the same rate, and this is a huge sticking point in their plan to strike.”

With this new curriculum already in place, teachers on the verge of a strike, and a $4 million deficit to boot, Bellevue is teetering on the edge of a crisis. Thankfully, administrators are treading lightly.

All parties, according to Oxrieder, are determined to find a resolution. The district’s bargaining team, which includes representatives of the district and teachers’ union, has met nearly every day this week, and will continue to meet throughout August until a contract can be agreed on.

“They’ll be working through the weekends and over labor day,” Oxrieder said.

The director declined to release any details on the bargaining process, but said the team expects to reach a resolution by September.

“As long as they’re talking, we have hope,” she said.

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