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Tacoma Teachers To Vote On Contract, Strike After Talks With Governor Chris Gregoire

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TACOMA, Wash. — Teachers in Washington state's third-largest school district approved a new contract Thursday, ending a 10-day strike that had kept Tacoma's 28,000 students at home for more than week.

Nearly 99 percent of teachers voted to approve a deal brokered Wednesday night by Gov. Chris Gregoire, who called representatives from the district and the teachers union to her office in Olympia after negotiations stalled.

"We need to start healing. We need to get back to our classrooms," Tacoma Education Association president Andy Coons said to a packed and muggy gym at Mount Tahoma High School, where the vote took place. "We need to focus on why we did this...we need to get back to that work tomorrow."

Classes are scheduled to resume Friday, the school district announced on its website. The news is a big relief to parents who have been scrambling to find daycare.

"I think there's a sense of elation not only at getting students and teachers back in the class but that we came up with an agreement that sets the stage for innovation in how we match up teachers with the needs of schools," district spokesman Dan Voelpel said after the teachers ratified the contract.

Teachers were told the three-year contract would keep basic salaries and class sizes the same. On the most contentious issue of teacher transfers, the contract calls for a committee of union and school district representatives to recommend a fair policy.

The union is concerned teachers could be transferred at the whim of principals. The district wants to consider factors in addition to seniority.

"We're working toward a system that will have more criteria involved that will have better matches between teachers and student," Voelpel said. "That system was the single most import thing we could do to achieve student achievement.

The district, which has 55 schools, has averaged 150 teacher transfers in the past five years. Teachers are transferred because of enrolment fluctuations, changes in programs or from school closings. Two closed last year.

Of the 1,701 teachers present at the high school Thursday, only 15 voted against the new three-year contract. Before and after the vote, the atmosphere was jubilant with sporadic chants, standing ovations given to the union's leaders and teachers dancing to Journey on the bleachers.

"It was nice to see teachers come together and defend their profession," said Cindy Brandt, an occupational therapist who works with student in special education, who said she couldn't sleep after the tentative agreement was reached late Wednesday.

Teachers went on strike Sept. 12. After a Superior Court judge ordered them back to work days later, the teachers defied him, this time with 93 percent of the teachers voting to continue the walk out.

Outside Mount Tahoma High School, a group of students killed some time before football practice. They said they were happy to go back to school. This group had been focusing on sports during the strike, but also said they've been able to sleep in.

"That was the best part about this," 16-year-old junior Zach Holt said. "The rest has been pretty lame. I'm ready. Let's go."


Manuel Valdes can be reached at .

Associated Press writer Mike Baker in Olympia, Wash., also contributed to this report.

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