West Ada cancels school Tuesday (copy)

Students will return to school Wednesday in the West Ada School District after a two-day protest in which hundreds of teachers, voicing safety concerns, refused to attend classes, triggering a teacher shortage.

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MERIDIAN — After canceling classes two days in a row, the West Ada School District plans to hold classes Wednesday. 

School was canceled Monday and Tuesday for lack of teachers, after hundreds of teachers joined together to call in sick in response to the district continuing some in-person learning despite Ada County's move into "red," Central District Health's most severe designation of coronavirus case spread.

The sick-outs prompted five parents to file a complaint in court against the teachers union on Tuesday.

Parents received notice Tuesday afternoon that school would resume, West Ada spokeswoman Char Jackson confirmed by email shortly afterward. Half of the student population will attend school in person and the other half online, known as Team 1 and Team 2, on alternating days. Team 2 will attend in person Wednesday.

"Over the past few days, the focus has been specifically working with the West Ada Education Association to find a solution that would ensure teachers feel safe and allow school to take place on Monday and Tuesday," the notice read. "Those efforts were not successful, but teachers have assured us that school will happen on Wednesday. West Ada School District appreciates this first step and is dedicated to finding solutions for those who have concerns over in person learning on an alternate day schedule."

Ahead of Monday classes, 652 teachers called in sick before the district canceled classes. Another 440 called in sick for Tuesday, triggering another cancellation. However, only 106 requested Wednesday sick days, a number Jackson said is "pretty typical for us."

The district has 215 active substitute teachers, Idaho Education News reported. West Ada is Idaho's largest school district with roughly 39,000 students. 

West Ada Education Association President Eric Thies spearheaded efforts to lobby teachers to refuse to work Monday and Tuesday. He did not respond to a request for comment, but KTVB reported yesterday that he did not plan to call for another sick-out Wednesday.

Five parents, with support from conservative policy organization Idaho Freedom Foundation, are suing the West Ada Education Association over the sick-out. 

A complaint and motion were filed Tuesday in Idaho’s 4th Judicial District Court by the Liberty Justice Center law firm. The complaint claims the sick-out was a strike by public employees, which it argues is illegal based on Idaho case law, citing a 1977 case against the Oneida Education Association.

Tuesday's filing assumes the sick-out had not ended, referring to it in the present tense. As a result, the complaint requests the court grant an injunction, in which the court would order an end to the union protest. The complaint filed also requests reimbursement for attorneys’ fees and an enjoinment against the district union, which would effectively block efforts to organize further sick-outs.

The law firm and Idaho Freedom Foundation announced the suit late Tuesday afternoon after the district announced the resumption of in-person classes.

“I have three young kids in West Ada schools and they are reeling from yet another disappointment this week,” plaintiff Roy Ratliff said in a statement. “The sudden changes in school are leaving my kids and others with emotional and academic anxiety. It is time for adults to be leaders and put our kids first.”

Additionally, parents in the district who want more in-person instruction are organizing a recall effort against all five school board members.

PAST STRIKES, LAWSUIT

The teachers union in the 1977 Oneida case argued that as public employees, they had a constitutional right to strike; the court disagreed.

"We find no constitutionally guaranteed right to strike in public employees and no such right existed at common law," Justice Allan Shepard wrote in the majority opinion, posted online by Harvard Law School's Case Law Access Project.

By the time the court issued the opinion, however, contract negotiations between the district and union were already settled and the strike had ended.

“Since the dispute between the parties and the threatened strike which resulted from non-resolution of that dispute has ended we see no necessity for a remand for further proceedings. We … order that the temporary and permanent injunctions be dissolved,” Shepard concluded, lifting a lower court's previously permanent injunction on the union’s legal ability to strike.

Justice Robert Bakes disagreed in part with Shepard's logic in his concurring opinion, countering that: "There is no Idaho statute which prohibits a strike by public school teachers. Although I.C. § 33-1271 provides for labor negotiations by public school teachers, that statute says nothing about strikes. In contrast, the statute which provides for labor negotiations by firefighters expressly prohibits strikes by firefighters. … In the absence of a direct statutory prohibition, what basis is there for saying that teachers’ strikes are illegal?" 

In 1991, roughly 400 Nampa School District teachers went on strike in unison with 23 districts nationwide, largely over salary concerns, according to a United Press International report. Before that, teachers held a walkout in Mountain Home in the spring of 1989, according to the Lewiston Tribune. 

Blake Jones covers Kuna and Meridian for the Idaho Press. You can reach him at bjones@idahopress.com and follow him on Twitter @jonesblakej.

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