Teachers band together as contract talks begin in Ki-Be School District

BENTON CITY -- The strained relationship between Kiona-Benton City teachers and administrators prompted a teacher from Mabton to travel to Benton City on Wednesday morning to join a group of other concerned teachers and supporters.

"What's happening here frightens me," said Will Schmick, a fifth-grade teacher in the Mabton School District.

His gratitude for the good relationship he has with his school district's administrators is what had him outside the offices of the Kiona-Benton City School District, cheering on teacher representatives as they headed inside to begin contract negotiations.

Wearing red T-shirts and holding signs with phrases such as "No more pay cuts" and "Honesty and respect," about 50 Ki-Be teachers and their supporters gathered ahead of contract talks, which are scheduled to go through Saturday.

Teachers and administrators said they hoped for a quick resolution so focus could turn to the pending school year, but there was little optimism a new contract would be approved by this weekend.

The district and its teachers have been at odds for years. Teachers have said the district has violated their contracts; they have been targeted for speaking against the district; and too much money is being spent on administrative costs. District administrators have said they are looking out for the best interests of the district's students and staff.

While Ki-Be teachers made up the largest contingent of Wednesday's demonstrators, there also were groups from Kennewick, Pasco and Richland.

Teri Staudinger, president of the Kennewick Education Association, said she has kept up on teacher concerns in Ki-Be through conversations with the Washington Education Association's local representatives. It's what led her and several Kennewick teachers to come out and support Ki-Be teachers.

"They just don't treat their teachers with respect," she said of Ki-Be administrators.

And it wasn't just teachers out in front of the district offices. Carol Stewart said she and her husband already have had four kids graduate from Kiona-Benton City High School and they have another child at the district's elementary school.

She said she and other district parents think the district is bullying teachers and became choked up when she said they deserve a fair shake.

"If it weren't for these teachers, my son wouldn't be pulling down straight A's," she said.

Connie Meredith, president of the Kiona-Benton City Education Association, said she and her bargaining team have a long list of concerns they hope to address, including the loss of $50,000 in insurance pool benefits, retaliation against teachers for union involvement, and the increasing cost of administration, despite cuts to teacher salaries.

"Who in this day and age gets a 3 percent cost-of-living raise?" Meredith said, commenting on the increased salary for Superintendent Rom Castilleja.

Rally organizers also had petitions available for attendees to sign to show a vote of no confidence in Castilleja and high school Principal Wayne Barrett.

Castilleja had no comment on the teacher rally other than to say it was the first time in his tenure as superintendent that the teachers had demonstrated before contract negotiations.

"I'm hopeful we can get right to the issues and have a good resolution for everyone," he said.

Barb Thomas, the head of the teachers' negotiation team, said she was going into the talks with a positive attitude, but Meredith and others said they expect it to be a drawn out affair, which will be compounded by an arbitration hearing on several teacher grievances beginning next week.

-- Ty Beaver: 582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com