Kiona-Benton City teachers, administrators still at odds

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldMarch 8, 2013 

BENTON CITY -- Teachers and administrators in the Kiona-Benton City School District recently finalized a settlement of numerous grievances, but they continue to butt heads.

The Kiona-Benton Education Association has filed several new grievances against the district for issues that have come up in recent weeks, union officials said. There also are concerns about a new substitute teacher policy being considered by the Kiona-Benton City School Board.

"It hasn't changed anything," said Steve Lindholm, a representative of Washington Education Association, who works with the local union. "It's becoming very obvious we're not going to affect the way business is done out there."

Superintendent Rom Castilleja said he is more than happy to have a positive relationship with the union but he wishes he knew what it would take.

"I'm not the one who files grievances," he told the Herald.

Attorneys for the district and union came up with the settlement in early January after years of contention that had cost the district tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and arbitration judgments in the latter half of 2012.

Under the agreement, the district reinstated substitute teachers Vic Engelhart and Avone Williamson. They were removed in March 2012 after they disciplined several students at Kiona-Benton City Middle School, including a son of school board member Jill Renz-Whitman. Both substitutes also were provided $2,000 each by the district. In exchange, the union dropped 10 pending grievances.

District and union officials said at the time that the settlement was meant to wipe the slate clean. However, new issues cropped up not long after the settlement was drafted. Lindholm said the union has six grievances pending against the district because it has violated the teachers' contract.

One of the grievances concerns a memo sent by Eric Nordlof, the district's labor relations director, to all district staff in early February.

The note indicates teachers may not discuss their employment or opinion of the district with students, treat students differently based on their parents' opinions on the district's labor issues or disclose student information to people not authorized to have it.

Nordlof said he drafted the letter on his own initiative based on issues he was hearing second, and third, hand.

"I thought there was a reason to clarify some basic employment expectations going forward," he said in an email to the Herald. "This is a cornerstone of employment law -- an employer should always let its employees know in advance what behavior is expected of them in order to eliminate misunderstandings later on."

Lindholm said he and other union officials characterized the memo as a threat, adding that Nordlof does not have the authority to discipline teachers because he is not an administrator. The teachers also have every right to discuss their employment and opinions of the district, he said.

"You can't limit First Amendment rights," he said.

The policy on substitute teachers was discussed at the district's board meeting last week. It would limit the number of days a subs could work in the district to 25. Subs who work 30 days or more in a school year are covered by the teachers' contract.

The new policy also would give administrators more say in what substitutes get assignments, especially for long-term duty.

Castilleja said a combination of issues led to the policy being drafted and it still is being revised.

"We don't want to run into those problems again," he said.

Union officials said the policy is meant to get back at Engelhart and Williamson, by preventing them from getting regular work in the district. The officials are seeking negotiations with the district to resolve union issues with the policy.

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