By Laura L. Myers
SEATTLE (Reuters) - A judge on Wednesday ordered about 1,900 striking public school teachers in Tacoma, Washington, back to work after a two-day walkout in a contract dispute over seniority, class size and salaries.
The school district, which has called the strike illegal, said in a message posted on its website that classes for its 28,000 students in 57 schools would resume two hours late on Thursday, and that school buses would resume their regular schedules.
"All employees represented by the (teachers' union) are to report to work and to discharge their assigned employment responsibilities in accordance with the school calendar and individual employment contracts," Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff wrote in his temporary restraining order.
He said his order was to take effect immediately, and he also ordered both sides back to court for a hearing on Friday to "verify" that teachers had returned to the classroom.
It remained uncertain, however, whether teachers would comply. A spokesman for the Tacoma Education Association did not immediately return phone calls for comment.
A bargaining session, the first since the strike began on Tuesday, had been scheduled for Wednesday, but there was no immediate word on the outcome of those talks.
The judge ordered negotiations to continue, and the school district said another bargaining session was set for Thursday afternoon.
Contract talks in Tacoma, the state's third largest public school district after Seattle and Spokane, began May 31 but reached a stalemate last weekend. The teachers have been without a contract since September 1
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 do.
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 close two elementary schools.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Greg McCune)