Ki-Be teachers agree to contract, but fighting goes on

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldOctober 17, 2012 

BENTON CITY -- Teachers in the Kiona-Benton City School District have agreed to the first multi-year contract in recent years, but apparently that hasn't ended their feuding with administrators.

School district officials are being accused of changing wording in the contract after teachers already approved the agreement.

Details of the three-year contract were finalized in mid-September though the contract took effect Sept. 1, according to a news release from the district.

District officials have said both sides were pleased with the result and lauded the discussions that led to it.

"The negotiations were wrapped up in record time, compared to the past years, and this, standing alone, is a sign that more harmonious labor relations between the school district and its largest union are possible," said a news release from board Chairman Charles Gray and Superintendent Rom Castilleja.

Officials with the Kiona-Benton City Education Association did not respond to repeated requests by the Herald to talk about the contract, and Castilleja said the union refused to issue a joint release on the matter, despite an earlier agreement to do so.

But another teacher representative with the Washington Education Association told the Herald on Monday that the district unilaterally altered language in the contract after it was ratified by teachers, compounding the already numerous grievances the union has filed against the district in recent months.

Steve Lindholm, a WEA representative who works with local union members on issues, told the Herald the allegation is serious and they plan to file an unfair labor practice complaint.

Lindholm said teachers noticed the contract change last week when they began to meet with student families for conferences.

The ratified contract said school principals were to arrange meetings between teachers and parents with multiple students to reduce the number of conferences.

However, teachers discovered that the contract was changed to say principals would help with arranging meetings, though the change was never highlighted or brought to the union's attention, Lindholm said.

Castilleja could not be reached Monday or Tuesday about the allegations. Emails sent to several school board members also went unanswered.

The district and its teachers have been at odds for years, as union representatives protested violations of previous teacher contracts and unlawful labor violations against individual educators. Many of those conflicts have ended up in mediation and arbitration hearings.

Teachers said they felt anxious ahead of the latest round of contract negotiations, which began in mid-July but they took just several days to reach an agreement.

District officials said in their release that both sides approached contract negotiations with a desire for collaboration.

The new contract addresses new state mandates, including a new teacher/principal evaluation system and new state healthcare requirements. Salaries are set at the state level and are generally not up for negotiation.

"The length of the new agreement should bring a period of labor stability to the school district," the district's release said.

The district already has been ordered to pay out tens of thousands of dollars in the past few weeks from two cases the union filed.

The district owes two teachers at least $8,500 each after an arbitrator found the district forced them to work outside their contracted hours.

The district also must pay back its employees after it stopped contributing to a health insurance pool and improperly deducted money from employee paychecks to put money into the pool.

That figure has been estimated to cost the district as much as $40,000 and doesn't include the district's legal costs.

Lindholm said the union still has several grievances and unfair labor practice complaints pending against the district.

The union offered this month to drop its claims against the district in exchange for "meaningful change," Lindholm said, but he said the district hasn't responded yet.

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