Ki-Be school board votes for superintendent to handle labor negotiations

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldOctober 14, 2013 

BENTON CITY -- The Kiona-Benton City School Board wants to keep its district's labor issues in house in hopes of improving relationships with teachers and other staff.

The board voted to have Superintendent Rom Castilleja, rather than contracted attorney Eric Nordlof, handle all labor negotiations with the district's employee unions. The vote came after the meeting moved to Kiona-Benton City High School's performing arts center to accommodate a crowd of more than 50 people.

Board member Dan Raap was the sole dissenting vote. Board member Charles Gray was absent.

Chairman Tim Cook said it was time for the district to start mending relations between administrators and staff. Having an actual district representative, rather than an outside party, work with staff is a first step toward that, he said.

"We've done this (contract with Nordlof) for a year, and I haven't seen it working for anyone," he said.

Raap said he wanted the board to set clear expectations and guidelines for everyone involved before the district goes down this path.

"I want some commitment from the other side," he said.

The district has been ensnared in ongoing labor disputes with its employee unions for about two years, particularly the Kiona-Benton Education Association, which represents teachers.

Tens of thousands of dollars have been spent on legal costs and arbitration that were resolved in the union's favor.

Nordlof was brought in to negotiate with the unions about a year ago. The union itself has a person from outside the district negotiate on its behalf, usually Steve Lindholm of the Washington Education Association.

Cook and board member Wayne Elston said that having Nordlof on contract hasn't reduced the issues between administrators and staff and has limited the information board members receive. At the same time, Nordlof has received at least $100,000 from the district.

"We need to go back to the way it was," Elston said, adding negotiations shouldn't require outside parties in such a small district. The board also voted to give notice to Nordlof that it will not renew his contract when it expires Jan. 31.

Raap said he doesn't have an issue with the superintendent taking on negotiating duties. However, there needs to be a document outlining how that should proceed and under what conditions outside counsel could be brought in.

Castilleja said he has the power as a superintendent to delegate his role as a negotiator. He urged that a similar condition for local representatives of the unions be required for negotiations.

"It's gotten to the point where we have two outside people debating what is in and not in the contract," he said.

Cook said the district can't force the unions to stop using an outside party to negotiate with the district. Rather, it's up to the board to make the first step to resolve labor issues locally.

"Our chain of command is screwed up," he said.

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

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