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Educators send message

As 25,000 teachers and supporters — including 1,500 from Kitsap County — converged on Olympia Tuesday, the mood was cheerful among participants and onlookers, even in the chilly mist.

“This is certainly bigger than I expected,” Cristi McCorkle, president of the Central Kitsap Education Association, said. “I just hope our message gets out to our legislators. I think they will certainly hear us, but whether they listen or not is another story.”

The Washington State Education Association handed out 19,000 blue parkas that read “Keep the Commitment” to participants as they gathered at Olympia’s Heritage Park.

From there, the jubilant crowd loudly marched one mile up Capitol Way, which was closed to traffic, toward a grassy area across the street from the Capitol Dome.

Along the way, drums rolled and participants chanted and sang.

All five school districts in Kitsap County participated in the WEA’s “Day of Action,” although South Kitsap didn’t close schools; rather, substitutes were hired.

Gov. Gary Locke, faced with a $2 billion budget deficit has proposed to suspend implementing two voter initiatives that would fund smaller classroom sizes and assure teachers and other classified staff cost-of-living pay raises.

Participants urged Locke and the state Legislature to commit themselves to following through with the will of these two voter-approved initiatives.

Students and teachers from Olympic College attended the event as well, and they held tall signs that stood out above the crowd.

“We’re here mostly so people don’t forget community colleges are a part of the education system,” said Ted Baldwin, a chemistry teacher at OC.

Community colleges are concerned the governor’s proposed budget will effectively increase tuition for students as well as postpone cost-of-living raises.

Once the thousands of participants gathered together on a lawn across from the Capitol, a steel-drum band struck up some music and, eventually, several speakers graced a temporary stage, including such notables as actor James Avery, better known as “Uncle Phil” on the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” TV show, and National Education Association President Reg Weaver.

“We have a commitment and a powerful vision,” he said. “We must stand ready to work with any lawmaker who is committed to a stable revenue system for education. If we can afford wars in far away countries, we can afford a quality education for our children.”

Rep. Kathy Haigh, D-Shelton, said she strolled around the crowd and even met teachers she knows. Haigh, who represents the 35th District, sits on the House Education Committee.

“They definitely got their point across,” Haigh said, “although we’re still a month or so away from getting down to the details of the budget.”

Haigh said she plans to introduce a bill Monday that would review how schools are funded by the state, and perhaps change the formula to direct greater levels of funding to students with greater needs.

As far as what legislators should do to ensure teachers and other school staff receive raises and classroom sizes are kept small, many spectators didn’t have any specific ideas in mind.

Some mentioned a state income tax or cutting elsewhere. But the event wasn’t about assigning blame, participants said, it was about building momentum in the community to support schools.

“We want the community behind us,” said Seenie Brown, a teacher at the Explorer Academy in South Kitsap. “The community is a big part of what we are about and we want to be a we, not an ‘us versus them.’ ”

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