Kennewick School District officials may open contract negotiations to the public.
The latest move in the negotiations between school district leaders and the Kennewick Education Association came during Wednesday night's meeting, where more than 100 teachers filled the school board's meeting room to share their stories.
School board member Ben Messinger proposed a resolution to unseal the normally private meetings between administrators and educators.
The board agreed . The proposal is expected back for a full vote at the July 11 meeting.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Tri-City Herald
Officials say the change would make the process more transparent and "provide an opportunity for the public to be informed of the latest developments."
"The resounding interest of the board members is to address miscommunication and provide transparency," Board President Dawn Adams said.
Janet Bell, Kennewick Educators Association president, said making the talks public has nothing to do with transparency.
"It's a move to discredit the union," she said. "It was in reaction to the fact that we packed that room (Wednesday)."
If the union rejects the idea, they appear to have something to hide, Bell said. But if they allow it, the district can bring in people to make the union look bad.
The move is generally proposed by organizations opposed to collective bargaining.
It was definitely a reaction to the meeting, said Adams, but not in the way that Bell said it was.
"It has been a long-standing practice in Kennewick School District that negotiations are closed," she said. "Many allegations were made last night reflecting a union that believes the district is negotiating in bad faith."
After several teachers claimed Kennewick administrators and board members lied, board members wanted a way to get the information they needed to respond.
The feeling has been compounded by feedback from union members not directly involved in the negotiations, Adams said.
"I feel it is more important than ever to be transparent so that consistent and correct information is accessible," she said.
At the center of the dispute is between $10 million and $13 million in additional money that the school district is expected to receive from the state as part the budget approved in March.
The contract doesn't end until 2019, but the additional money has led the district to reopen negotiations.
District officials previously said that they are receiving about $11 million more for teacher pay and benefits.
The district is poised to lose even more than that because of a state-mandated cap on property tax levies, which will cut such funding by more than half.
Teachers union negotiators have not been impressed with the district's opening proposals, Bell said.
While the number has gone up from the 1.9 percent pay increase district administrators initially offered, it hasn't left the single digits.
Several details about the board's resolution aren't known, including when the public could attend negotiations and how much they could interact with officials.
The board expects to have a resolution to discuss at their July 11 meeting.
Kennewick would be the first school district in the Tri-Cities to publicly discuss opening negotiations to the public.
Pasco and Richland school districts are in the middle of negotiating new contracts with their teachers' unions after signing off on one-year extensions last year.
Neither district is considering changing how they handle negotiations.
The move would be new for Kennewick, but it wouldn't be the first in the state.
The Pullman School Board made a similar change in January 2017. People can watch the meetings, but they aren't allowed to participate, and bargaining groups still have the right to private meetings.
Pullman was followed by Tukwila School District. Both based their resolutions on suggestions from The Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based conservative think tank that has fought against public-sector unions for years.
During the first session following the Pullman decision, only a handful of people attended the bargaining session, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News reported.