Ugliness grows in the dark. Kennewick school talks needed to be open | Editorial

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.

The longer the Kennewick school teachers are on strike, the messier contract negotiations become.

It would be helpful if the community — including teachers not at the bargaining table — could have clarity on what’s really going on between the school district and the teachers’ bargaining team, but closed door sessions make that impossible.

As it is, we get bits and pieces of the story, but without a balance of information there is no way to get an accurate and complete picture.

School administrators talk about pay increases in terms of percentages while union leaders say they want salaries competitive with Pasco and Richland school districts.

Administrators counter that the state didn’t provide enough money to meet teacher demands, and union representatives say they know the money is there.

All the while the public is left wondering what information is being left out, and why the two groups can’t get along.

Open collective bargaining may not be the norm, but it does happen.

It is standard practice in the Pullman School District, for example, and it is common in 13 other states, including Oregon and Idaho. Several counties in Washington state also have adopted an open bargaining process.

The Kennewick School Board had hoped to negotiate with school district teachers in the public, but the Kennewick Education Association did not agree.

That’s a common union position.

Eddie Westerman of the Washington Education Association met with the Tri-City Herald on Monday along with Rob Woodford of the KEA union.

Westerman concedes there is a risk misinformation can be spread in a community if contract talks are closed.

However, she said union leaders believe “bargaining takes place at the table” and it is best to let their team work without distraction.

The Kennewick School Board has a different philosophy this year. It decided for the first time that all documents exchanged between school district officials and the teachers’ union would be made available to the public on the school district’s website.

We praised that idea when we heard about it earlier this summer. Taxpayers pay school bills, and they should be able to monitor how that money is being spent.

The document exchange was posted online for much of the contract talks, but after negotiations stalled last week the process stopped.

School Superintendent Dave Bond told the Tri-City Herald Editorial Board that union officials will no longer hand over documents to the school district bargaining team because they don’t want them posted.

Bond said that in order to keep the documents off the school district website, union officials hold their documents up for school district officials to read instead of handing them over.

Such an effort to thwart transparency is extreme, and makes it tough for district officials to properly analyze the counter-proposals.

But Woodford said there are nuances involved in bargaining that go beyond proposals on paper, and that is why union leaders don’t want the proposals online. Documents don’t tell the whole story.

We bet he is right, which is why it would be great to open up negotiations to the public so citizens — and teachers — can watch how the process plays out.

Contract talks conducted in the public eye tend to reduce posturing and improve progress.

Since the teachers went on strike Tuesday, there has been less movement than ever. In fact, discussions took a contentious turn Thursday when the Kennewick Education Association filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint with the Washington State Employment Relations Commission.

The union claimed, among other things, that the school district “cracked into the computer of KEA’s head negotiator.”

Also on Thursday, the school district has filed an injunction in Benton County Superior Court to force the teachers back to work.

We don’t expect to see union officials change their minds now, but in the future we hope they consider bargaining in the open.

Ugliness grows in the dark, and we’re seeing that now.