Mercer Island teachers support Bellevue strike

Teachers from across Bellevue gathered behind picket signs last week, striking in solidarity for higher wages and a more flexible curriculum. The districtwide strike, which was announced at a teachers' union meeting on Sept. 1, left more than 1,600 students without class on the first scheduled day of school.

Bellevue teachers will continue to strike until they have a written contract that meets their standards: a pay increase that compares with neighboring districts and more flexibility in the classroom.

According to Ann Oxrieder, director of communications for the Bellevue School District, the main bone of contention is over wages.

"The district believes that the biggest stumbling block is pay raises," she said.

On Friday, Aug. 29, the district's mediation team presented teachers with a proposed list of benefits and salary increases, the details of which are posted on the district's Web site. Bellevue educators, however, were not impressed.

"[The proposal] is really complicated," Oxrieder said, unable to give a concrete salary number. "But the bottom line is that teachers want about double what we've offered."

Since Friday, when the district declared an impasse, Bellevue's negotiating team has not yet been able to appease the striking teachers.

The district has offered a 3 percent pay raise over three years, on top of a 5.1 percent cost-of-living raise from the state. In total, teachers' salaries would rise 8.1 percent.

The Bellevue Education Association, however, wants a 9 percent raise in addition to the cost-of-living adjustment. This adds up to a 14.1 percent raise over three years.

School Board members are unable to meet this demand without letting go of nearly 60 teachers, increasing class size and trimming academic programs. Bellevue has already cut nearly $5 million from its 2008-09 budget.

After eight weeks of striking, it seems that everyone — teachers, parents and students alike — is aching to get back into the classroom.

"This is not a place any teacher wants to be," Michele Miller, Bellevue Education Association president, told the Seattle Times.

Yet Bellevue's educators are showing little signs of giving in, and the Mercer Island School District, according to Mike Radow, head of the Mercer Island Education Association, is standing right behind them.

"Certainly, they have our support," said Radow, who was present at the Sept. 1 union meeting. "I've heard from a handful of MI teachers with kids in Bellevue schools and they, too, are supportive of the strike."

The Bellevue teachers' union first voted to strike during a meeting on June 10. As a group, they decided that if a contract was not agreed to by the first day of school, they would picket. The vote passed with 94 percent in favor.

On top of unsatisfactory wages, the teachers were upset with 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 "prescripted" curriculum inhibits student creativity and learning diversity within the classroom, teachers said.

On Sept. 1., Bellevue negotiators proposed a deal where teachers could submit lesson plans deviating from the online curriculum for approval.

"Teachers can use professional judgement to create new lessons if the online lessons aren't working with kids," Oxrieder explained. If a teacher's syllabus is approved by administrators, she added, it can then be used in other classes.

Bellevue teachers, however, feel they have the professional right to teach a lesson without the nod of administration — a privilege that few Mercer Island teachers take for granted.

"[Island educators] should be grateful that they work in a place where the district is not prescribing what they do every moment," Radow said, adding that Mercer Island is actually pushing more individuality in the classroom.

One prime example, he said, is the district's recently proposed 2020 Vision, an academic mission proposed by the Really Big Idea Committee that "prepares students for the cognitive, global and digital world."

"We're not going anywhere near this direction [of Bellevue] with our newly articulated vision. We're encouraging teachers to innovate and allow things that will work," Radow said.

Indeed, Mercer Island teachers are grateful that this school year has gotten off to a smooth start. Unlike their Bellevue neighbors, MISD staff are in a good place right now.

"This is one of our calmest years — the school district, the teachers, everyone is getting along," Radow emphasized. "We don't need to call in any mediators. We're doing a good job of solving our problems internally."

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