May 30, 2012

Wichita teachers, school district at impasse on contract talks; federal mediation sought

The Wichita school district will seek federal mediation — and closed-door sessions — to settle a contract dispute with its teachers over salaries and other issues.

The Wichita school district will seek federal mediation — and closed-door sessions — to settle a contract dispute with its teachers over salaries and other issues.

Representatives for the district and the local teachers union declared an impasse Wednesday after another heated negotiation session that district officials called “adversarial.”

Neither side knew when a mediator would be appointed. A new contract is set to begin Aug. 1.

Since talks began in March, the sides have not discussed salaries and have made little progress toward consensus on such issues as teacher evaluations, attendance, lesson plans, dress code, classroom discipline and professional development.

“This has been very adversarial, and I think you have to agree,” said Tom Powell, general counsel for the district. “Right from day one, the way it was orchestrated, the comments.

“I think that’s an impediment to us reaching agreement, and … for all those reasons, we’re at impasse.”

Greg Jones, lead negotiator for United Teachers of Wichita, which represents the district’s 4,000 teachers, said his group had hoped to extend talks past a Friday deadline that requires mediation unless both sides agree to continue.

“We certainly believe there’s some possibility of coming to agreement,” Jones said. “We haven’t even talked about money, so I don’t think we’re at impasse. We need to talk about it.

“I guess they want to go to impasse,” he said. “Obviously, the cameras bother them a great deal.”

Teacher contract negotiations are public, open meetings.

This year union officials brought a video camera to the first session, intending to record the proceedings in case they wanted to share them with their members, possibly on YouTube.

The district’s team protested the move, then relented and began recording the sessions as well.

On Wednesday, Powell said the union’s insistence on recording the sessions started this year’s talks on a negative note.

“When you tell our team right on the first day that there’s a possibility that we’re going to be on YouTube, what do you think?” Powell said.

“That puts us in a … position where we have to be thoughtful, be very careful about what we say because whatever we say can be completely taken out of context. We could be made to look like utter idiots.”

Jones countered: “Since things are public anyway, we don’t think there was anything out of line about having the videotapes.”

Sara Harjo, a teacher at South High School and a member of the union’s negotiating team, said the tussle over cameras was symbolic of a larger issue.

“To the common teachers like me, it feels very much like it is us vs. them and that the administrators, the people that work in this building, automatically distrust teachers,” she said.

“Whether it be (that) we’re going to abuse a video or have faulty lesson plans or not be able to discipline our students, it feels like there’s an automatic mistrust and maybe a lack of respect.”

Mary Whiteside, the district’s director of personnel, said that wasn’t the case. But going to mediation, away from cameras and the media, will help both sides talk more specifically and openly, she said.

Public meetings “hamper the conversation,” Whiteside said. “We’re not able to have that open conversation to try to work through some of the nitty-gritty that happens.”

During a three-hour session Wednesday, the teams discussed a district proposal for more detailed lesson plans.

“This is very important to us,” Whiteside said. “We just see this as such a vital part of the education that happens in the classroom.”

Jones said requiring lesson plans could add to teachers’ workload and keep them from seizing “teaching moments” – straying from or even abandoning written plans – when appropriate.

Similarly, Jones said, a district proposal that would require teachers to follow a school’s discipline plan before referring students to the principal means teachers could lose the freedom to control classrooms as they see fit – an issue “pretty near and dear to teachers’ hearts.”

Jones said his team had a preliminary proposal regarding a teacher dress code, but they didn’t want to present it until they heard from the district on salaries and other monetary issues.

“Last year we felt like we were out on a limb. We made some gives and all of a sudden there we were without any gets, and … we’re not going to do that this year,” he said.

The union is asking for a 3 percent salary increase and a return to raises, plus back pay, for additional education or experience. It also seeks fewer professional development days.

District leaders have proposed freezing teacher pay at 2008 levels.

Powell said his team wasn’t prepared to discuss salary issues because they would not meet with school board members until June 11.

He said the district’s financial picture remains uncertain despite a $4.2 million increase in state funding this year. Officials still expect increased costs, cuts in federal funding and potential long-term effects from one of the largest income tax cuts in state history.

“Nothing’s changed with the board’s desire to do something for employees this year, salary-wise,” Powell said. “I just think the Legislature has thrown a curve at us that is going to have to be taken into consideration.”

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