Editorials

Editorial: Kennewick school officials pulled back the curtain on contract talks, and it was the right decision

Kennewick Education Association bargaining rally

James Gow, Washington Education Association-Southeast representative, tells about the contract negotiations being held between the Kennewick Education Association and the Kennewick School District.
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James Gow, Washington Education Association-Southeast representative, tells about the contract negotiations being held between the Kennewick Education Association and the Kennewick School District.

When public officials are deciding how to spend public money, the public should be allowed to see how those decisions are made.

It’s a simple concept.

Yet when it comes to negotiating employee contracts, the norm around Washington state is that such discussions occur behind closed doors.

That’s why the decision by the Kennewick School Board to shed light on its bargaining talks with the teachers’ union is such a breakthrough. We hope the example takes hold in the community, and encourages other Tri-City school districts and city and county governments to follow suit.

In addition to changes related to student discipline and family leave, the Kennewick Education Association and the Kennewick School District this summer are negotiating teacher salaries.

For the first time, all documents exchanged between school district officials and the teachers’ union are being made immediately available to the public on the school district’s website.

The school board’s new policy says that the board “recognizes that collective bargaining agreements are among the most expensive contracts negotiated by the District, and that both taxpayers and employees deserve to know how they are being represented during collective bargaining negotiations.”

We agree. Taxpayers pay the salaries, and they should have a way to monitor the process setting those wages.

The school board intended to open up negotiations to the public, but only if the union agreed. That didn’t happen, so the talks are occurring in a closed room.

But even so, posting bargaining documents, proposals and counter-proposals online is a major step. It is important to give the public some idea of what is going on, and this accomplishes that.

We understand salaries are a touchy topic, and people feel protective about discussing them. We also realize that union representatives typically don’t like the idea of opening up contract negotiations to the public.

Rich Woods, a spokesman for the Washington Education Association, called the move to post Kennewick bargaining documents online a strategy by the board to deflect the issue of competitive pay for teachers. He questioned the motive behind it.

Nevertheless, a strategy that lets in some light on a dark process is a good one.

Keeping discussions as open as possible helps quiet rumors and misinformation, which can get out of hand, leading to anger and frustration on both sides of the bargaining table.

It can help prevent both sides from taking extreme positions so a compromise can be reached more quickly. Open negotiations also can help employees who are not at the bargaining table become more informed in the process, which is a plus.

And while Kennewick school officials are venturing into new territory in the Tri-Cities, open collective bargaining is a common practice in 13 other states, including Oregon and Idaho. It is also standard in the Pullman School District and several counties around Washington state.

And in Spokane, voters will decide in November on a measure that would require open collective bargaining talks between the city and government unions.

If other states and other government agencies have found a way to open up the bargaining process with labor unions, then it’s obviously a workable endeavor.

Kennewick school officials did the right thing by opening the doors as far as they could to their contract talks with the teachers’ union. We hope it leads to the opening of other Tri-City doors that currently shut the public out during bargaining sessions.

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