BENTON CITY -- The Kiona-Benton City School District has spent more than $155,000 on legal expenses during the past two years, more than triple what it typically would budget during that time.
Those increased expenses stem from dozens of grievances and unlawful labor practice complaints filed against the district by the Kiona-Benton City Education Association. Those costs don't include the tens of thousands of dollars the district had to pay out after it lost some cases in arbitration.
Superintendent Rom Castilleja, who's headed the district since 2007, said he characterized the onslaught of claims against the district as an orchestrated effort by teacher union officials to bankrupt the district. Steve Lindholm, a representative with the Washington Education Association who works with the KBEA and other local teacher unions, denied the allegation and said the conflict results from the district's lack of honesty and integrity.
Officials from both sides said conditions must improve so the district can focus on educating children, but there's nothing in sight suggesting that will change soon.
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"The two dogs are going to fight until one of them wins," Lindholm told the Herald.
At odds for years
District administrators and members of the teachers union have been at odds for years. One tally from union representatives lists more than 30 claims filed against the district since the spring of 2011. Those claims cover issues ranging from violations of hiring procedures to requiring the union to pay to use school facilities.
Castilleja said Lindholm is focused on harassing the district's leadership.
"He shared with us in one of his first meetings with us that he had a name to make for himself and either I was going to go or the principal was," Castilleja told the Herald.
He added he didn't know why Lindholm would target Ki-Be. There have been only a couple of grievances WEA has pursued in other Mid-Columbia districts in the past year, with all those being resolved without arbitration.
Lindholm said Castilleja's statement of his motives is a lie and non-sensical.
"I told (Castilleja) in the first meeting that relationships were like a marriage: If we proceed with honesty and integrity, things will be fine. If the opposite transpires, there will be conflict," he said.
Connie Meredith, a first-grade teacher at Kiona-Benton Elementary School and KBEA president, said the union and the district were at odds before Lindholm worked in the region. In the years before 2011, the union was filing a minimum of eight to 10 grievances or complaints against the district.
"There's no harassment, we're following our contract," she said.
Ki-Be school board Chairman Charles Gray also said Lindholm has said he could bankrupt the district with grievances. Gray and Castilleja said WEA sent a letter about two years ago to its representatives telling them to file lots of grievances against districts to strong-arm them. But Gray said he doesn't know why the union is focused on Ki-Be, which, with about 1,500 students and three schools, is among the smaller of the K-12 districts in the Mid-Columbia.
"I'm not sure what their whole game plan is," he said.
Lindholm said he has no desire to bankrupt the district. The WEA has supported the filing of grievances to protect union member rights, but that doesn't necessarily mean filing everything possible. Rather, it depends on the relationship the union has with administrators. The lack of trust with Ki-Be administrators is reflected by the regular filing of grievances and complaints, he said.
Meredith said the union doesn't want much.
"Communication is nice and following our contract would be great too," she said.
Mounting legal costs
Not all the claims filed against Ki-Be have been resolved, and some have been dropped, but several have resulted in rulings in favor of the union. Some of those rulings had minor impacts, such as the district being forced to reimburse the union $85 after the union had to pay a fee to use school facilities. Use of facilities is included in the union's contract with the district.
But other rulings had greater consequences. In September, an arbitrator ordered the district to pay two teachers a combined $16,000 for forcing them to work outside contracted hours during the previous school year.
Later that month, an arbitrator ordered the district to reimburse employees it had deducted pay from to cover a health insurance pool the district was responsible for.
Castilleja said at the time that the district would have to pay the teachers about $17,000 as a result of the ruling. Union officials said Castilleja didn't include the cost to replace the money in the pool as well, which was part of the arbitrator's decision, putting the total cost of the ruling at $40,000.
And those expenses don't include legal costs. Castilleja said the district previously set aside about $25,000 a year to pay an attorney to handle legal matters and contract negotiations. That money has been exhausted and the district now is dipping into reserve to pay its legal bills.
Castilleja said "arbitration is really a coin flip" and involves arbitrators who don't necessarily understand the intricacies of the cases. Gray also was dismissive of the arbitration process.
"I don't agree with the arbitrators. I think some of them are biased," he said.
Lindholm said those characterizations are inaccurate, and he questioned why the district sent so many cases to arbitration if its administrators don't think they're getting a fair shake.
"If the conflict is union-caused, why are we winning arbitrations and unfair labor practices?" Lindholm asked.
'Talking past each other'
While district administrators and union officials have heaped blame for the conflict on each other, Eric Nordlof, a consultant hired by the district to improve relations with employees, sees it differently.
"I see a lot of people talking past each other," he said.
Nordlof previously worked as an attorney for the Public School Employees union, which represents employees such as custodians and bus drivers. He pursued and won an arbitration case against the district in 2010.
In that case, the district was ordered to reinstate two custodians it had terminated. The custodians testified against the district in a 2009 arbitration where a junior custodian, the husband of school board member Jill Renz-Whitman, was promoted over a more senior employee.
Nordlof acknowledged that he had his conflicts in the past with the district, but said the current state of affairs isn't being pushed by administrators.
"I'd love to see things quiet down out there," he said.
But quiet isn't on the horizon, despite what administrators and union officials said are their best efforts.
Castilleja sounded optimistic earlier this month when he announced the first multi-year contract with the union in years, only to have the union announce a new round of grievances a few days later.
Lindholm said he and other officials have tried to meet and settle issues with administrators, but Castilleja said those meetings are fruitless, as union officials are unwilling to make firm commitments.