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Teachers in Tacoma, Washington, go on strike

By Laura L. Myers

SEATTLE (Reuters) - About 1,900 public school teachers in Tacoma, Washington, the state's third-largest school district, went on strike on Tuesday in a contract dispute over salary, class size and seniority.

The walkout, coming in the second week of Tacoma's new school year, followed a strike vote on Monday night and forced the district to cancel classes for its roughly 28,000 students.

School district officials said the job action was illegal and said they would seek a court injunction ordering teachers back to work.

In the meantime, striking teachers are walking picket lines outside the district's five high schools.

Labor talks between the teachers union and the school district began May 31 but collapsed over the past weekend. The teachers have been without a contract since September 1.

The Tacoma Education Association said 87 percent of its total rank-and-rile voted in favor of a strike Monday night.

The biggest obstacle to a settlement, according to the union, is the district's demands to alter staffing policies so that decisions on teacher reassignments from one school to another are based on criteria other than seniority, such as performance evaluations.

The union says it also objects to pay cuts sought by the district and is at odds with the district over class size, which the teachers want to reduce but the district insists it cannot afford to increase.

The union asserts the district has amassed a surplus of $40 million, while the district says it will have to spend down its reserve funds by $15.4 million this year to avoid deeper cuts in teaching positions and student programs after being forced to eliminate about 100 job and closing two elementary schools.

The state budget passed on May 25 will reduce statewide spending over the next two years by $4.6 billion, more than half of that in education, and Governor Christine Gregoire has warned the state faces additional revenue shortfalls of at least $1 billion.

The last time Tacoma teachers went on strike was in 1978, a walkout that lasted 29 days. The only Washington state school districts bigger than Tacoma's are Seattle and Spokane.

(Writing by Steve Gorman and Greg McCune)

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