District-teacher contract negotiations warrant more transparency

  • Wednesday, March 13, 2019 1:47pm
  • Opinion

Several school districts around Washington are grappling with financial concerns now that there is a new education funding plan in place, which followed the landmark McCleary Decision, mandating that the state fully fund public education.

One of the challenges at the Vashon Island School District is that since the details of the state plan were announced last spring, district officials and union leaders have disagreed on just how much money the district has — and on what size raises the district can afford to provide. Signs of that disagreement were evident at a school board meeting late last month, when several of the island’s public school educators expressed concerns about possible staffing reductions, and district officials listened quietly after sharing opening remarks that noted the difficulty of making reductions as well as the importance of solvency and sustainability.

That disagreement about financial resources will likely continue when the district and the Vashon Education Association — the local teachers’ union — begin negotiations this week for their next contract.

We expect those negotiations will occur privately. But in the future, we would like to see the collective bargaining process opened up for more transparency. In this state, which has some of the strongest “sunshine laws” in the country, a more open process makes sense. It also makes sense because of the confusion around the legislators’ McCleary funding plan; it is state taxpayers who are providing the funding for that plan, and they have a right to see clearly how the contract negotiation process fits into the larger whole.

The negotiating process for teachers’ contracts often takes months. If the process were open to the public, we doubt a flood of community members would want court-side seats to watch it all unfold — and we expect that some elements of the process would remain private. But there are districts that have opened up the negotiations to some degree, and we believe they provide valuable models.

In California, for example, each side’s initial bargaining proposal is presented at a school board meeting, and closer to home in Pullman, Washington, negotiations have been public since 2016. Among the reasons Pullman made the change to an open process are that collective bargaining agreements are among the most expensive contracts negotiated by the district and that both taxpayers and employees deserve to know how they are being represented during negotiations.

As school districts settle in to a post-McCleary future on Vashon and around the state, we believe that is sound reasoning.

In the meantime, islanders who are interested in the island’s public schools and learning more about the work of the school district are always welcome to attend school board meetings. The next meeting will be at 7 p.m. tonight, March 14, in the third floor conference room at Chautauqua Elementary School. Meetings are typically held two Thursdays a month; see the district website for a complete list of meeting dates, as the meeting schedule does vary from month to month.

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