Suzanne Perez Tobias

Is Wichita teachers union video common sense or ‘deliberately inflammatory’?

You can tell teacher contract season is gearing up in Wichita when union leader Steve Wentz reaches for the video camera.

A recording posted on the United Teachers of Wichita Facebook page Monday is a doozy:

“From this point going forth, any conversation that you have with an administrator, someone from HR, whatever that may be — if there is not a third party witnessing that conversation . . . You get your cell phone out, and you record that conversation,” Wentz says in the video.

“It’s legal, and it’s the right thing to do.”

The 42-second statement — recorded at Wentz’s desk and posted with the simple directive “Please share” — suggests that at least some Wichita administrators aren’t being honest.

It hints that principals or others may be saying one thing to teachers during private conversations and something else down the line. It implies hypocrisy or outright deceit.

District spokeswoman Wendy Johnson said she was puzzled by the Facebook post and by the “deliberately inflammatory suggestion that all conversations be recorded.”

Asked whether or how district officials planned to respond, Johnson added: “You would have to ask Mr. Wentz what the reason behind the message is.”

Wentz, in his second term as president of the Wichita teachers union, is no stranger to provocative statements. A video posted to the union’s Facebook page nearly two years ago blasted district officials for creating a deputy superintendent position.

He wouldn’t say what prompted the new directive. The union isn’t suggesting that teachers record every casual conversation with an administrator, he said.

On Tuesday afternoon, Wentz posted another video clarifying the union’s recommendation.

“Any time that you feel like you need to be backed up, then you record that,” he said. “Then both people have a very accurate representation of what was said, and there’s no ambiguity. It is best practice, and that’s our recommendation.”

It’s understandable that the union, which represents more than 4,100 teachers, librarians and other certified employees, wants to protect its people.

It’s reasonable for employees to expect honesty from supervisors and to feel betrayed if that trust is broken. It’s true that recording conversations is legal — I do it all the time when I interview sources — and could be advisable if there’s a concern about words being skewed.

It’s just unfortunate that a new year of teacher contract talks is starting under a cloud of tension and mistrust.

Wichita district and union representatives met for the first time earlier this month to begin hammering out next year’s teacher contract. They are scheduled to meet again Wednesday evening.

It’s unclear whether Wentz plans to bring up the communication problems he hints at in his latest videos, along with perennial contract issues such as teacher pay and the academic calendar.

But if teacher-principal relations truly are as bad as he’s insinuating — whether at just one school or districtwide — mature, face-to-face talks could be a good step toward finding a solution.

Suzanne Perez Tobias is a columnist and member of The Eagle’s editorial board. During her nearly 30 years at the newspaper, she has covered breaking news, education, local government and other topics. An avid reader, Suzanne also oversees The Eagle’s books coverage and coordinates the annual #ReadICT Challenge. She can be reached at 316-268-6567.