School district contract negotiations begin

April 13, 2010

By Chantelle Lusebrink

Issaquah School District and union officials are rolling up their sleeves and coming to the bargaining table as four employee groups’ contracts expire this summer.

Contracts for teachers, bus drivers, secretaries and educational assistants expire Aug. 31.

Public employees in the state are required to join unions and bargain for wages, hours and conditions of employment.

District and union officials started meetings even as the final state budget and potential cuts to education are in flux. They are also taking a different approach to negotiations this year.

The Issaquah Education Association “has met with the district for three all-day sessions,” President Neva Luke wrote in an e-mail. “Both sides have worked very hard to get negotiations off to a good start.”

For instance, district and Issaquah Education Association officials — the teachers’ union — participated in interest-based bargaining training with officials from the Public Employment Relations Commission, according to the district’s Web site.

The training included negotiation methods that asked each side to bring interests to the table, rather than positions, and work toward collaborative solutions. The training also included brainstorming and consensus decision-making.

To help write the contract, teams come to a solution on an interest or issue they enter into a tentative agreement. The collection of tentative agreements makes up the final contract. However, the final contract must still be approved by the teachers’ membership and the Issaquah School Board before becoming official.

“The benefit of interest-based bargaining is that the teams focus together on interests rather than positions,” Sara Niegowski, district communications director wrote in an e-mail. “That leads to collaborative work towards mutually beneficial solutions — as opposed to each team entrenched in a particular solution from the get go.”

In addition, teachers’ union and district officials met March 8 with members of the Parents, Teachers and Students Association to discuss community values in the negotiation processes.

“Rightly so, parents don’t have a voice at the bargaining table, but clearly it is important for the voice of the customer, the kids, is essential to make sure that we have a contract that reflects the best educational product for kids,” PTSA member Leigh Stokes said.

PTSA leadership gathered opinions, ideas and survey data from parents from November to early February. The data they received produced four overarching values the community wanted the bargaining teams to keep in mind.

Respondents want:

  • To have the most effective teachers in classrooms every day to maximize effective learning time. The responses included suggestions, like hiring and retaining the best teachers, school calendar and class time and professional development.
  • Students to graduate from high school with as much preparation as possible so that they have many choices available when they pursue their next desired step. The responses included suggestions, like ensuring curricula is pertinent and students are prepared to take multiple pathways after graduation.
  • To be treated like true partners in the educational process. The responses included suggestions to open communication pathways between parents and teachers and parents and the district.
  • Every student in this district to have access to the same quality educational resources, no matter which teacher they have or which school they attend. The responses included suggestions, like ensuring all schools received the same tools, training and curricula and sharing resources between schools.

“We have made good progress in these sessions,” Luke wrote. “We have scheduled several more sessions and will continue to work hard with the district until a good contract is concluded.”

Teachers’ union and district officials have several meetings scheduled through April and May for continued bargaining.

District officials also have meetings scheduled with the other unions. Educational assistants’ union officials will meet with district officials April 14, and secretaries’ union officials will meet with district officials April 29. District officials and bus drivers’ union officials have yet to schedule a meeting date.

“Our hope is to reach agreements on contracts that serve our schools well,” Niegowski wrote. “That means both being financially responsible and ensuring employees have the wages, hours, and working conditions they need to perform their jobs well.”

If at any point during negotiations either bargaining team feels as if there is an impasse in negotiations they may petition for assistance from the Public Employment Relations Commission. Assistance usually comes in the form of third-party mediation.

Chantelle Lusebrink: 392-6434, ext. 241, or clusebrink@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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