Strike resolved in Bellevue, Island teachers agree with Eastsider demands

Flexibility with curriculum not an issue in Mercer Island schools

Bellevue teachers returned to work on Monday with a contract that mostly met their standards: a pay increase that compares with neighboring districts and more flexibility in the classroom.

The districtwide strike, which was announced at a teachers’ union meeting on Sept. 1, left more than 1,600 students out of school for the first two weeks of the term. The Bellevue School Board decided not to seek an injunction against its striking teachers on Sept. 10, but returned to the bargaining table to press for a settlement.

According to Ann Oxrieder, director of communications for the Bellevue School District, the main bone of contention was money.

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

The district had 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, wanted a 9 percent raise in addition to the cost-of-living adjustment. This adds up to a 14.1 percent raise over three years. The teachers instead will receive a 5 percent increase over three years in addition to cost of living adjustments.

Bellevue School Board members said they were unable to meet the original demand without letting go of nearly 60 teachers, increasing class sizes and trimming academic programs. Bellevue has already cut nearly $5 million from its 2008-09 budget.

Mercer Island School District teachers were in solidarity with the Bellevue strike, said Mike Radow, head of the Mercer Island Education Association.

“Certainly, they have our support,” said Radow said last week before the settlement. “I’ve heard from a handful of Mercer Island teachers with kids in Bellevue schools and they, too, are supportive of the strike.”

Though teachers strikes are illegal in Washington state, it is up to local school boards to enforce the law.

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 prescribed curriculum inhibits student creativity and learning diversity within the classroom, teachers said.

On Sept. 1, Bellevue negotiators proposed a deal whereby 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 new 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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