BENTON CITY -- The Kiona-Benton City School District owes its teachers and staff thousands of dollars for improperly deducting health insurance costs from their paychecks since April.
Arbitrator Dorothy Fallon made the ruling this week on the case, which involved the district ceasing to pay into a health insurance pool for district employees and simultaneously billing employees to maintain it.
District officials argued they were not obligated to pay into the pool because it never was discussed as part of teacher contract negotiations and only was continued because of an accounting mistake. Fallon, however, disagreed.
"Finding justification for elimination due to a 'clerical error' is simply implausible," Fallon wrote in her ruling. "Had the district succeeded in eliminating the benefit in negotiations, it would have stopped providing funding immediately upon settlement of the contract, and not waited for more than six months."
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District officials and teacher representatives disagree as to how much actually is owed back to district employees but the total cost to the district is likely to reach into tens of thousands of dollars.
According to arbitration documents, the district had paid $50,000 a year into a health insurance pool for members of the Kiona-Benton City Education Association. That condition had been in place for years as part of the teachers' union contract with the district.
Kim Scott, the district's business manager, notified the union in April that the district would cease those payments because they never were explicitly discussed during the 2011-12 contract negotiations. Additionally, the language in the new contract had the wrong dates for that section of the contract.
"Scott testified that she believed the failure to negotiate the amount to be placed in the pool for the 2011-12 school year led to a 'sun setting' of the benefit," according to arbitration documents.
Additionally, the district began deducting the cost of maintaining the cost of the pool from teacher paychecks. That practice continued until August and Steve Lindholm, a teacher's representative with the Washington Education Association's southeast office, said that amount varied from teacher to teacher.
"A single teacher maybe had $35 to $40 taken out each month but those with family plans were losing $100 plus," he said.
Fallon's ruling requires the district to provide the remainder of the pool funds it would have paid into the pool as well as reimbursing union members for the docked pay within a month.
Superintendent Rom Castilleja said that means the district will pay the teachers about $17,000.
Lindholm, however, said the cost to the district likely is closer to $40,000, as it will have to provide about $20,000 to the pool as well as tens of thousands of dollars more to individual teachers for the docked pay. That doesn't include the district's legal costs in the case and its share of the cost for the arbitrator.
"My desire is not to bankrupt the district. My desire is to have them follow the contract," Lindholm said.
The district is paying into the insurance pool as it agreed in its current contract with the union.
The ruling is the latest in a series of disputes between the district and its teachers. Several other grievances still are pending against the district, including one involving two substitute teachers dismissed without explanation.
-- Ty Beaver: 582-1402; email@example.com