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Contract deal ends teachers strike in Tacoma, Washington

By Laura L. Myers

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Union leaders for 1,900 striking teachers in Tacoma, Washington, reached a tentative contract deal on Wednesday night with school district officials in talks mediated by the state's governor, ending the walkout after more than a week.

The settlement, which the teachers must still ratify, was announced by Governor Christine Gregoire shortly before 10:30 p.m. local time from her office in the state capital, Olympia, where she had summoned the parties for a last-ditch round of bargaining about seven hours earlier.

Details of the accord were not revealed, but the dispute had centered on disagreements over staffing policies, class size and salaries.

"This agreement provides a long-term solution, meets the district's needs and ensures teachers remain proud to report to their classroom every day," Gregoire, a Democrat, said in a brief statement issued to the media.

She said classes would remain closed on Thursday for the 28,700 students enrolled in the state's third-largest school district while rank-and-file members of the Tacoma Education Association vote on the pact.

Assuming the deal is ratified, the district's 57 schools would reopen on Friday for the first time since teachers walked off the job on September 13. Union members had defied a back-to-work order issued by a state judge.

A message posted on the union's website announcing the settlement and ratification vote said teachers on Thursday "should not attend their scheduled picket lines, nor should they go to work."

The two sides had appeared to edge closer to agreement following marathon talks on Monday and Tuesday. But a three-hour bargaining session on Wednesday broke off without a settlement at about 1 p.m., two hours before a deadline set by Gregoire as the walkout stretched into its seventh school day.

Abiding by the governor's demands, negotiators for the two sides then traveled to Olympia, about 30 miles southwest of Tacoma, arriving shortly before 3 p.m. to begin further closed-door talks in her office.

The main obstacle to a settlement, the union has said, was district demands to alter staffing policies so that decisions on teacher reassignments between schools are based on criteria other than seniority, such as performance evaluations.

The union also objected to pay cuts the district had sought, and the two sides disagreed over class sizes, which the teachers wanted to reduce. The district had said it could cannot afford smaller classes.

The union said the district has amassed a surplus of $40 million, while the district said it would have to spend down its reserve funds by $15.4 million this year to avoid deeper cuts in staffing and student programs after being forced to eliminate about 100 jobs and close two elementary schools.

As part of a new proposal on Tuesday, the district offered to keep salaries at current levels rather than seeking cuts, district spokesman Dan Voelpel said.

The district also proposed establishing a joint panel of teachers and school officials to set new teacher evaluation standards that would be used in conjunction with seniority to make future staffing reassignments, he said.

Labor negotiations in Tacoma began on May 31, and the teachers have been without a contract since September 1.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)