Wichita teachers and their families still are awaiting details of a tentative contract agreement reached between the school district and the United Teachers of Wichita, which was announced more than a week ago.
Local union officials say they may have to wait a bit longer to learn more – possibly until a new union president takes the helm on June 15.
“We are in a major transition,” said union vice president Heather Bruce. “And we are wanting to make sure that the details that are in the contract are what the details should be.
“We want to make sure they’re accurate, so we have to go page by page through the contract book to find out. And we will wait for the new leadership to release those details after June 15.”
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Earlier this year, Steve Wentz, a social studies teacher at Wichita Southeast High School, was elected president of the local union, which represents the district’s 4,000 teachers in contract negotiations and other matters. He defeated current president Randy Mousley, who had run for re-election.
Wentz was not part of contract negotiations this spring, though he asked to be.
Mousley, who represented the union through negotiations and helped craft the tentative agreement, recently recused himself from the union’s executive board and says he will not participate in further discussions about it.
“There’s a little friction at this point,” Mousley said. “It’s not unusual for a member of a board to recuse themselves. … It’s a personal thing for me at this point.”
Mousley said he could not provide The Eagle with a copy of the tentative agreement until the union’s executive board votes on whether to endorse, reject or take no position on the proposed contract. District officials also would not release a copy of the tentative agreement.
A news release issued May 29 listed several elements of the agreement, including a one-year salary freeze, reduction in workdays, changes to the health plan, changes to teacher evaluations and the formation of a leave time study committee.
Wentz, the president-elect, said he understands teachers’ frustration over not knowing the terms of the proposed contract. He doesn’t know them either, he said.
“No decisions have been made from those of us who are coming in. We haven’t even seen the changes (to the contract) in totality ourselves,” Wentz said Friday. “We’re in the process of going through that.
“The message I want to get out to everybody is: Let’s take a deep breath. Let’s wait until the 15th, and that week there will be a statement coming out.”
The May 29 announcement marked the earliest tentative agreement in recent history. Most years, negotiations continue through the summer, and teachers vote on a proposed contract after they return to school in August.
Usually, details of a tentative agreement are announced along with news that an agreement was reached.
On June 1, members of the union’s executive board met to review and discuss the tentative agreement. According to an e-mail sent to union members, the group was hampered because “President Mousley was not present at the EBoard meeting and did not provide a highlighted draft copy of the contract.”
“The Eboard had to go through the entire contract page by page and compare it to last year’s contract to find the changes,” said the e-mail sent from Rebecca Denton, a union staff member. “Due to prior commitments the Eboard didn’t finish this process. … Specific details regarding the TEA (contract) will be sent after June 15.”
Mousley said the copies he provided to board members did have changes noted.
“They just weren’t highlighted like they wanted them. It was just an excuse,” he said.
Three members of the union’s executive board – Bruce, Kim Howard and Dwight Goodman – also were members of the union’s negotiating team, Mousley added.
“They knew what all those changes were,” he said. “Apparently, they didn’t manage their time properly and they didn’t get to the point where they made a decision.
“But I can’t control what I can’t control. And I won’t be at the next meeting, so I don’t know what they’re going to do. I have no idea.”
Mousley said he would not attend the next union board meeting, scheduled for Monday afternoon, because he will be on business for a national organization in Washington, D.C. He will remain president of the local union, however, until his term expires June 14.
“I’m still here. I still show up every day,” he said.
It’s clear there is dissension among union ranks, which many say began after Wentz was elected in March. Some officers and board members say Mousley is refusing to communicate with them.
Sometime after the tentative agreement was announced last week, Mousley deactivated the United Teachers of Wichita Facebook page, which the group normally uses to update members and others on contract talks and other issues. Asked why, he said, “Inappropriate personal comments have it on hiatus.”
As part of an informal agreement with the Wichita district, the union president and vice president collect their teacher salaries but work full time for the union during their two-year terms. The union reimburses the district for all costs associated with those contracts, including payroll taxes and retirement contributions.
Mousley has worked full time for the local union since 2009, when he was elected vice president. In 2012, he was elected to replace outgoing union president Larry Landwehr, who retired. He has been part of the United Teachers of Wichita leadership since 2000, when he was a building representative at Coleman Middle School.
Last year, the teachers union and district leaders agreed to a new process for contract negotiations called modified traditional bargaining, which is intended to make contract talks less adversarial. As part of the change, both sides release a joint statement after each negotiation session and then do not comment further or elaborate on it.
In keeping with that strategy, the May 29 announcement of a tentative agreement came without the usual news conference or interviews during which representatives from both sides answer questions about it.
Mousley said he understands some teachers may feel frustrated by the lack of information, particularly about changes to health care coverage. But “I haven’t personally had a whole lot of calls,” he said.
“I will tell you this: Even with the changes that are going to have to occur to maintain the financial solvency of that fund, it’s still going to be the best health care plan for teachers in the state of Kansas,” he said.
Bruce, the union vice president, said executive board members would meet to review the tentative agreement again Monday and plan to update members afterward on their progress.