Ki-Be teachers union claim dismissed

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldNovember 10, 2012 

An examiner with the Public Employment Relations Board has ruled the Kiona-Benton Education Association didn't provide enough evidence to prove claims of discrimination against three Ki-Be employees.

But Steve Lindholm, a Washington Education Association representative who works with KBEA, said an appeal is planned.

"I think this hearing officer was not fully aware of all the intricacies of the actions the district participated in," he said.

Superintendent Rom Castilleja told the Herald said the district does not want to continue fighting the union and continuing the dispute only hurts students. "Nobody wins in this," he said.

According to legal documents, the union's complaint was filed a year ago and involved three teachers:

w Amberlee Swensen, a kindergarten teacher who started working for the district during the 2009-10 school year and was laid off before the 2011-12 school year.

w Gary Finn, a former full-time teacher who worked as a substitute in the district until November 2011 after two female students made allegations of inappropriate behavior against him.

w Jennifer Oliver, a teacher at Kiona-Benton City High School who was disciplined for not clearing a field trip with an administrator and for using "offensive and profane" language.

Union representatives contend Swensen and Finn were dismissed and Oliver was reprimanded because they took part in union activities, such as testifying against the district in a grievance hearing.

The union also was critical of the fact the district never fully investigated the claims against Finn, even after one of students said Finn's behavior was unintentional.

But the district provided other reasons for the dismissals and reprimands. Swensen was laid off because of budgetary concerns that also affected teachers with more seniority. In Finn's case, the district said it was concerned about liability, especially since Finn was reprimanded for a similar incident as a middle school softball coach.

Oliver also was told to seek approval for the field trip before it was scheduled and failed to do so. Her supervisors also reminded her that profanity was inappropriate.

Examiner Stephen Irvin ruled, "Although the evidence suggests the employer's investigation of the complaints by the two female students was incomplete, the union's remedy for violation of the contract's due process protections would result from an arbitration hearing rather than unfair labor practice hearing."

Lindholm said a decision hadn't been made whether to pursue arbitration in Finn's case, but that an appeal of the unfair labor practice complaint was coming, with the union adding more details to show how administrator relationships with the employees led to discrimination.

The unfair labor practice complaint is just one of several ongoing disputes between the district and the union. Some have been dismissed or settled, but others have gone to arbitration.

The district was ordered to pay out tens of thousands of dollars in two different cases in September, stemming from two teachers being forced to work outside contracted hours and the district improperly docking employee pay to cover a health insurance money pool.

Officials from both sides have said they don't want to see the conflict continue but the disputes have continued.

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