A Thurston County Superior Court judge ordered Tumwater teachers Wednesday to return to work, ruling their ongoing strike is illegal and causing "substantial and irreparable" harm.

Teachers were ordered to immediately end their strike after representatives for the school district appeared in court Wednesday morning to prove the strike caused harm, a request made by the judge during last week's hearing.

"At this point, we believe or there is evidence to support that there will be substantial and real harm specifically to the disadvantaged and or special education children in the Tumwater School District. I am finding that the substantial harm requirement has been shown in this case," Judge Lanese ruled.

But outside the courthouse teachers from the district stood united, chanting, "It's not over." The union president said its members will meet at noon to discuss next steps and the possibility of defying the court order.

If the teachers ignore the court order, sanctions could be determined at a later date.

Contract negotiations are expected to continue through the Wednesday.

Judge Lanese gave the district until the Wednesday hearing to prove evidence of harm. Superintendent John Bash said that will not be difficult.

“We’re getting complaints from parents," Bash said. He added that disadvantaged families are having an especially difficult time paying for childcare.

The school district filed an injunction on Sept. 5 against the teachers union and Tumwater Education Association President Tim Voie. The district argues the strike is interfering with the rights of students to attend school. Wednesday was supposed to be the first day of school.

Voie acknowledged the strike is causing difficulties for the community, but he said the teachers aren’t the only ones to blame.

“There’s also been harm done to our students when they’re in classrooms with 36-38 kids or when they’re in unsafe situations in the classroom,” said Voie.

The Tumwater School District is trying to "force" striking teachers back to work, according to a newsletter from the Education Association.

"They want to force us back to work without a contract," the newsletter states. "The District does not want to lower class sizes, offer student and staff safety, or provide us a competitive wage.

"They stalled until the zero hour through spring and summer. Now we know why."

The district claims the strike is illegal. That's true, according to a 2006 ruling from the Washington state attorney general, which states public employees have no legally-protected right to strike. Districts and parents groups can file an injunction to force teachers back to school. However, there are no penalties in the law to punish teachers or other public employees when they do choose to strike.

The ongoing teacher negotiations stem from the McCleary Decision, which allocated $2 billion for teacher salaries in the current budget.

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