BENTON CITY -- When Kiona-Benton City School District administrators show up to the district's offices this morning to negotiate teacher contracts, they might be greeted by people carrying signs and shouting support for district teachers.
Steve Lindholm, a teacher's advocate with the Washington Education Association, said he asked educators throughout the Mid-Columbia to support Ki-Be teachers.
"We've got people from all walks of life showing up," Lindholm said Tuesday.
It's the latest in an ongoing conflict between Ki-Be administrators, who have said they are working in the best interest of the district, its students and personnel; and the district's teachers, some who have filed complaints and grievances claiming retaliation and contract violations.
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Teacher contracts in the small Benton County town are set to expire Aug. 31. Lindholm said he and the district's teachers wanted to start negotiations before summer to guarantee a new contract was in place before classes for their 1,500 students begin this fall. But that didn't happen.
Contracts aren't the only issue the district and teachers will be meeting about this month. An arbitration hearing on several allegations of unlawful labor practices is to start next week.
One case involves a kindergarten teacher who was fired in May 2011, allegedly in retaliation for her seeking union advice on an evaluation of her performance, according to court documents filed by WEA.
Another grievance involves a substitute teacher fired the same month after two female students made allegations he acted improperly toward them. The district did not investigate the allegations and did not inform him of what he was accused of, according to the complaint.
The district has denied any wrongdoing in both cases.
A third case at this month's arbitration hearings involves two longtime Ki-Be substitute teachers, Vic Engelhart and Avone Williamson.
They said they were fired from substitute teaching in the district in March, though both said the district hasn't told them why.
Both are experienced teachers, having taught full-time in Ki-Be schools for years, served as presidents of the Kiona-Benton City Education Association and worked as substitute teachers in the district for several years more.
District officials have declined to talk about the status of the former substitutes.
The two were teaching separate classes March 13 at Kiona-Benton City Middle School. Williamson said the day passed mostly without incident, but about a third of the students in her final class were argumentative, stood up during her lesson and refused to read their assignment.
"They pretty much refused to sit down," she said. "They said, 'We don't have to read to you.' "
When an administrator didn't show up to help after Williamson called the office, Williamson sent a student to a neighboring class to get Engelhart.
Engelhart said he left a paraprofessional in charge in his class while he went to help Williamson. He told the students in her class about the possible consequences if they continued to be disruptive. He also pointed out students he'd had difficulty with in the past, as well as students who behaved properly when he was their sub in an effort to motivate them to cooperate with Williamson.
After a few minutes, the room was more under control and he left.
However, Williamson said a few students acted out again and she sent three to the office to have their parents contacted.
Vance Wing, then-principal of the middle school but now a district administrator, eventually came to the room and asked Williamson about the offending students.
A week later, the teachers discovered their names had been removed from the Ki-Be substitute teacher list. They were told it was a district decision, but they said district officials never have given an explanation for their removal.
Teacher representatives and district administrators have tried to work through problems in recent months, but the relationship between them has only gotten more strained, Lindholm said.
Lindholm and Superintendent Rom Castilleja met this spring to work out some of the grievances, but it didn't go anywhere. Lindholm said he was frustrated by a lack of progress.
"They were pointless," he said. "The district refused to discuss any remedies whatsoever."
The situation might have worsened in recent weeks. The superintendent sent a letter to Connie Meredith, president of Kiona-Benton City Education Association, criticizing Lindholm's behavior toward district administrators, including calling high school Principal Wayne Barrett a profanity and asking him, "Are you really that stupid?" during a visit to the school.
As a result, Castilleja said no WEA representatives would be allowed in meetings with his staff and administrators unless they were investigatory or disciplinary in nature. The district also is considering recording any future meetings involving Lindholm, according to Castilleja's letter.
"Whether Mr. Lindholm agrees that a particular supervisor is following the terms of the agreement or not, there is no room in labor relations for the type of abusive and bullying outburst," Castilleja said.
Castilleja and Lindholm declined to talk about the issue.
Charles Gray, chairman of the Ki-Be School Board, said he traces the start of the bad feelings between administrators and teachers to about a year ago, when the state cut teacher salaries and the district didn't dip into reserves to lessen the cuts. Since then, he said, tension between some teachers and the district has continued to pile on.
He and Castilleja said they are hopeful a good working relationship can develop between the district and the teachers union. Castilleja said the district has great teachers, many of whom come to work each school day to do what's best for their students.
Both said the relationship needs to improve, but Gray said the district is on the right path to repairing it.
"I really don't think it's that bad," he said. "There are some issues that need to be hammered out."
However, Meredith said the problem lies with the district's unilateral approach to dealing with staff. She criticized district administrators, particularly Castilleja, for disregarding teacher rights within teacher contracts and targeting union members who challenge decisions.
Meredith and Gray said it would be good for the involved parties to sit down and have a conversation, not necessarily as administrators and teachers, but as ordinary people.
Either way, the relationship isn't going to be fixed before both sides appear for arbitration proceedings later this month and certainly not before they meet today to work on a new contract.
"We're going to have to work at it, that's for sure," Meredith said.