The Kennewick School Board is keeping teacher contract negotiations closed to the public.
The decision came Wednesday night, and was cheered by dozens of teachers who packed the board’s meeting room.
The school board didn’t actually take a vote on the issue. Instead, board member Ben Messinger made a motion to open negotiations to the public, but none of his board colleagues offered up a second and the motion died for lack of enough support.
The idea had been on the table for a few weeks.
Messinger first brought it up at a board meeting last month, and his board colleagues agreed to consider it.
Officials said it could make the collective bargaining process more transparent and help the public stay up to date on developments.
However, the district’s teachers union was against it, calling it an anti-union tactic that would hurt the negotiation process.
Like many districts across the state, the Kennewick district and union are in the midst of negotiating over teacher pay.
Kennewick teachers’ existing three-year contract doesn’t end until 2019. But the state Legislature has allocated about $1 billion more for teacher pay statewide as part of an overhaul of public education funding, and KEA — like other teachers unions across the state — is advocating for a salary adjustment.
KEA leaders have said the district has the money to pay teachers more, but district officials have said it’s not that simple — that while the district is getting more money for teacher pay, it’s also losing money because of a state-mandated levy cap.
The Pasco and Richland school districts both are negotiating new contracts with their teachers’ unions after signing off on one-year extensions last year. As of last month, neither district was considering opening up negotiations to the public.
Before Wednesday’s board meeting, Kennewick teachers rallied at the district office and then many attended the session to hear the discussion.
About nine teachers and community members spoke up during public comments — all against opening up negotiations. They said it would limit candor in the bargaining process and hurt trust, among other issues.
“This proposal comes from groups outside of this community, which are anti-public education, anti-teacher and anti-student,” said Janet Bell, president of the Kennewick Education Association, which represents about 1,200 teachers and other certificated workers.
“(The union’s) goal is to develop a long-term, respectful and collaborative relationship. I hope the board realizes it is the teachers and other educational employees that are the face of this district to parents and students. If you chose to take actions that damage the relationship with the people on the front lines, you risk damaging your relationship with students, families and the public,” she said.
Messinger said the idea didn’t come from outside groups, but from him.
“I’m not the puppet of some third party. I didn’t consult with anybody about this. I honestly believe in transparency,” he said. “My strongest impetus for this was speaking to teachers telling me, ‘Well, these are the facts,’ and knowing those were not the facts.”
Other board members said they considered the idea as a way to deal with misinformation about the district’s actions and motives during the negotiation process.
“It was in large part because we believe this information should be made public if there’s going to be misinformation and falsehoods that are used as weapons in the process,” said Heather Kintzley, board vice president.
But board members ultimately decided it wasn’t the right path.
Messinger said he respects the board’s decision, and also the opinions shared during the meeting.
Board members seemed hopeful moving forward.
“I’m encouraged to believe there’s movement in a good direction. I’m encouraged to believe that the relationship will withstand this test,” Kintzley told the crowd.