Strike tests superintendent's reputation as a peacemaker

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Teachers picket during the strike's first day.

The Seattle schools strike, the first the city has seen over a teachers' contract in 30 years, is the type of high profile confrontation that Superintendent Larry Nyland might have been expected to avoid.

Nyland, a veteran school administrator who grew up in Seattle, has a reputation for being a peacemaker. In 2004, he was brought in as superintendent of the Marysville School District to rebuild community relationships after a bitter, 49-day teachers strike there. By 2007, he had made so much progress that he was chosen by fellow school adminstrators as the state Superintendent of the Year.

Prior to that, Nyland stepped into the interim superintendent’s position in Shoreline for a year in the 1990s to rebuild trust after employees twice voted no confidence in his predecessor. He still boasts on his LinkedIn page of rebuilding labor relationships in Pasco, which had gone through a 1979 strike, during his 10 years as superintendent beginning in 1982.

In Seattle, though, Nyland faces a test that could present a bigger challenge than anything he's seen before.

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Larry Nyland Credit: Seattle Public Schools

So far, the Seattle strike seems to be about specific issues ranging from pay to more support for teachers in the classroom and the length of the teachers' instructional week. The state’s well-documented shortcomings in providing adequate funding to local districts loom large in the Seattle teachers’ requests for better salary improvements than Seattle has offered.

A district spokesperson, Stacy Howard, said the strike doesn’t appear to be about personalities, but about the issues. “There is an itemized list of some things that have been worked out and some that still have to be worked out,” she said. Statements from the Seattle Education Association, which represents nearly 5,000 striking teachers and support staff, have so far largely focused on the bargaining topics rather than the superintendent or the school board.

School strikes, however, can quickly become heated, with long-term implications for good relations among teachers, the superintendent, the School Board and even the larger community. In a statement given to the Seattle Times, teachers union President Jonathan Knapp criticized the School Board for “grasping at legalistic straws” in considering court action to force the striking employees back to work. And on the picket lines, there is already talk about the need for respect from the district.

The School Board, for its part, has given Nyland the authority to seek a judicial injunction for teachers to go back to work, although spokesperson Howard said there are no plans or timetable for him to do so.

Marysville’s recovery after its lengthy strike brought Nyland considerable praise from all quarters, including the teachers union's leadership there. Before Nyland arrived, the district also had deep-seated problems with the community and voters, who had repeatedly rejected school construction bond proposals to accommodate a growing student population.

“It was just horrible before he got there,” said Bob Bolerjack, a former editorial page editor at the Everett Herald who is a trustee at Everett Community College. But Nyland patiently listened to community concerns. “He went from community group to community group to community group, just listening,” Bolerjack said. The results changed the perception of the schools, and led to voter approval of badly needed construction projects.

When Arden Watson left the Marysville Education Association presidency in 2014, she told The Herald of Everett that the district was in better shape than it had been before, in part because of Nyland. But the union’s current president, Randy Davis, says that while Watson and Nyland worked together, he’s not sure how genuinely collaborative the superintendent was with teachers.

“I think Dr. Nyland had a real vision,” Davis said, and seemed less interested in hearing from teachers than in moving forward with his own ideas. “I did not ever really feel there was a lot of cooperation around what do teachers need, what do students need, and what do teachers need to support those students.”

Davis described himself as completely supportive to the striking Seattle teachers, noting that while Marysville teachers might like to be paid more, they at least face lower expenses for housing than in the booming Seattle real-estate market. And he suggested Nyland might want to work harder at listening to Seattle’s teachers.

But there are also larger forces at play here. Davis pointed out that “the state still has not stepped up and fully funded the McCleary decision” by the Supreme Court, which has ordered better state financing for schools.

More state funding would hardly erase Seattle's issues about pay and teachers' classroom time, because there are inevitable tensions between staff and administration over how to spend the money. But, as a series of one-day walkouts by teachers in Seattle and many other districts last school year showed, teachers are as deeply frustrated as the Supreme Court is with the pace of education funding improvements by the Legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee.

In a press briefing on Wednesday, district officials said the two sides are some $55 million apart on costs over the next two years. District officials expressed optimism Wednesday about a quick resolution to the strike, and talks are expected to resume Thursday. One of the district’s negotiators, Jon Hafaker, described the atmosphere in bargaining sessions as very positive, despite moments of tension.

Seattle's situation is certainly a far cry, at this point, from what appears to be the atmosphere in Pasco, where teachers are also on strike. At a union meeting just before the strike, the Tri-City Herald reports, members of the Pasco Association of Educators overwhelmingly voted “no confidence” in the local superintendent, Saundra Hill.

Bolerjack said that, looking in from Everett, it appeared that the players in Seattle “are dealing with issues that have more to do with state funding.” And Nyland, he said, was always prudent about finances. While Nyland would rather get along with people than be engaged in a confrontation, he also seemed willing to face an issue, Bolerjack said: "He takes responsibility for what he is supposed to take responsibility for."

In the state's fractured educational system, however, balancing fiscal responsibility and what the district insists is its goal of honoring Seattle's teachers could prove especially tricky. Nyland has experience in rebuilding a school system after a strike, but there can be an equal challenge in holding a district together. Even with all Nyland's experience, his ability to compromise, listen and pull the system forward despite disagreements will be severely tested.


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