Substitutes reach settlement, head back to classroom at Kiona-Benton City School District

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 15, 2013 

Two substitute teachers dismissed from the Kiona-Benton City School District last spring will be allowed back in the classroom as part of a settlement between the district and Kiona-Benton Education Association.

Legal counsel for the district and teacher's union hashed out the settlement last week, according to union and district officials. Along with reinstating Avone Williamson and Vic Engelhart, the union will drop another 10 grievances pending against the district.

Details still are being worked out, but union and district officials said they are happy to see resolution on the horizon and look forward to finalizing the settlement.

"I feel positive, that this is a huge step forward," said Connie Meredith, the union's president.

District administrators and union leaders have sparred over grievances and complaints of unlawful labor practices for a couple of years. The district was ordered to pay tens of thousands of dollars regarding two grievances that went to arbitration in mid-2012, but the union lost another set of cases of teacher complaints against the district late in the year.

Engelhart and Williamson were removed in March 2012, about a week after they disciplined an unruly eighth-grade classroom at Kiona-Benton City Middle School. Several students were sent to the office and their parents contacted, including a son of Kiona-Benton City School Board member Jill Renz-Whitman.

The teachers said they never were told why they were dismissed. Superintendent Rom Castilleja said the district had reason to dismiss the teachers but hasn't said what that reasoning was because of the related grievance against the district. He and Jill Renz-Whitman have said the teachers were not removed because her son was disciplined.

Steve Lindholm, a representative with the Washington Education Association, said the district initiated discussions that led to the settlement.

"Overall, I think it's a workable deal," Lindholm said.

The settlement is meant to wipe the slate clean. In addition to dropping the other grievances and Engelhart and Williamson being reinstated, the substitutes will also be able to retain $2,000 cash settlements offered to them by the district in the fall.

The district acknowledged the settlement in a press release. Castilleja described the news as a victory for students that will reduce tension in the district and save thousands of dollars in legal expenses from protracted conflict.

"In the current national political climate, where compromise appears to be a forgotten art form, we are pleased to demonstrate that it is still possible to compromise in our school district," School Board Chairman Charles Gray said in the release.

Castilleja declined to speak further on the settlement after the Ki-Be board meeting Monday night. Gray was absent from the meeting because of illness.

Engelhart said he was pleased with the settlement and is looking forward to returning to teaching in the district.

"I just hoped it would have happened a little sooner on," he said.

The whole deal hinges on the district and union finalizing everything in the next 90 days, or all the grievances will again be active.

And regardless, one grievance against the district involving specially designated instructional time, known as Bear Time, will continue into arbitration. Acting board chairman Tim Cook and board member Wayne Elston said the program needs to continue.

"It's already proven to benefit the kids," Elston said.

Meredith said the union doesn't deny the program has benefits, but it's beyond the scope of the district's current contract with its teachers.

"They've increased the workload but without compensation," she said.

Both sides said they are ready to move on, despite that remaining disagreement. And Meredith said she and other teachers are eager to see Engelhart and Williamson available for duty again.

"I've already had someone request them for Jan. 25," Meredith said.

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver

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