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Town Still Waiting to Get Back to School

Families in Marysville, Wash., are increasingly frustrated as striking teachers set a record.

October 19, 2003|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

MARYSVILLE, Wash. — Fifth-grader Francesca Rubatino is only vaguely aware that the teacher strike in town set a record. At 48 days and counting, it's the longest ever in Washington state and the only teacher strike left in the country.

All the 11-year-old knows is that she's tired of doing nothing. She misses her friends, and she doesn't like getting scolded by her parents for doing things like ordering hip-hop jewelry from the Internet.

"There's nothing else to do," she complains.

Her mother, Michele Rubatino, is tired of getting up every morning and thinking of things to keep her daughter, an only child, busy.

She and her husband, Frank, tried to enroll Francesca in another district but were turned down. Now the family is thinking of moving from this blue-collar burg 25 miles north of Seattle.

"I'm just so mad," Michele Rubatino says.

The families of 11,200 students in the Marysville School District are in the same waiting game, wondering when the strike will end so life can return to normal.

Gov. Gary Locke intervened last week, admonishing both the school district and teachers union to settle the dispute. The union represents 650 teachers.

Negotiating teams for both sides met over the weekend to try to comply with a court-mandated deadline. If no agreement is made, Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Linda Krese will decide Monday whether to force the teachers back to school.

An organization of parents named Tired of the Strike filed a lawsuit asking the judge to end the strike and to fine defiant teachers up to $250 a day. The school district joined the suit.

But the judge's ruling may not settle the conflict. Some teachers have implied they would disobey such an order, regardless of the fines.

"It's an option. It's always an option," says Elaine Hanson, a high school math teacher and president of the teachers union, the Marysville Education Ass. "When the time comes, the teachers will decide whether we follow the court order or continue on."

School district spokeswoman Judy Parker says she's confident the teachers will honor the court's decision and that Marysville schools will soon "be open for business."

Parker says 40 students have transferred to other districts since the strike began Sept. 2.

Many working parents have made ad hoc arrangements with neighbors and relatives to care for their children during work hours. Some parents take turns watching one another's kids. Michele Rubatino has such an arrangement with several parents.

Day cares and community centers in the area teem with new kids, and some parents have lamented in public meetings about the monthly cost of extra child care, which in some cases is more than mortgage payments. Older students hang out in libraries and shopping malls.

Last week, the teachers union began running 30-second television ads targeting the Marysville School Board. The ads, running on local cable channels, ask residents to call board members and urge them to negotiate a fair contract. Money for the ads came from donations.

The two sides, which have met more than 20 times since contract talks began in June, remain apart on salary issues. Veteran teachers in the community are among the highest-paid in the state, averaging $54,000 a year. The union says Marysville salaries must remain competitive to keep its teachers from moving.

The teachers are also asking for improved benefits and fewer workdays without pay.

Hanson says the union will hold out as long as it can to get the fairest possible contract without jeopardizing students' education.

State law requires students to attend 180 days in a school year. The union has presented a number of school-year options to meet the requirement. For example, if classes begin Oct. 29, the school year would end July 30. The latest day school could start would be Jan. 9, according to union lawyers. In that case, school would end Aug. 13.

Michele Rubatino cringes at the thought of school starting so late.

It could mean a shortened summer -- or worse, no summer break at all.

She wonders whether it'll be possible for teachers, administrators and students to get along after so much acrimony. Teachers have been picketing the homes of school board members, and students have become increasingly angry with teachers.

The situation is upsetting to Francesca, who, as much as she misses her friends, is open to moving to another city. "It's depressing here," she says.

The old state record for a teacher strike was 37 days in 1995 in the Fife School District near Olympia.

According to the National Education Assn., two other teacher strikes -- one in Pennsylvania, the other in Illinois -- ended earlier in October. Marysville is the only community left with closed schools because of a strike.

The longest teacher strike in U.S. history started in 1975 in Southpoint, Ohio, and ended two years later.

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