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District accuses teachers of half-truths

by Merrie Leininger

The Douglas County School District administration says the teachers’ association is telling half-truths and doctoring the facts about contract negotiations to bring public support to their side.

Assistant Superintendent of Personnel John Soderman is in charge of negotiations with not only the teachers, but all employee groups. He said the association is using age-old tactics to turn DCSD into the bad guys.

“That information is totally a red herring. If I were selling a car and I knew it was worth $4,000, I might ask $5,000. You might offer $3,000, knowing full well it’s worth $4,000. We’d have discussions and end up with a deal that was neither of our starting positions. But it is unlikely I would declare an impasse and stop negotiating,” Soderman said.

He said each side presented proposals and then DCSD presented eight counterproposals, leaving 16 – including salary – before the Douglas County Professional Education Association declared an impasse.

Soderman said the agenda settled on did not require all counterproposals. He said there are a total of 44 proposals on the table that haven’t been discussed.

“We don’t agree we had the legal amount of meetings. We had nine meetings, but most of the time was spent on issues like who goes first and, basically, ground rules issues. The law requires four discussions about proposals, and we only had two. I’ll grant that time (spent discussing ground rules) was excessive, but talking about contract proposals is what the law requires.”

The district refused the third-party mediation offered by the association because the district didn’t want to set a precedent of going to a mediator or arbitrator with all the proposals.

“It’s about negotiation. You problem solve, you give some and you get some and some issues end up in arbitration. That’s how it is supposed to work. It’s not supposed to be a media event,” Soderman said.

Both sides have filed unfair labor practice complaints with the state labor board and those will be heard before arbitration will take place.

n Proposals. Soderman said the teacher’s association is misrepresenting what proposals were made by both sides.

“They are giving snippets and pieces of proposals and using them to deliver the message they want teachers to hear,” he said. “We are not embarrassed about our proposals, that’s what negotiations are, and if the DCPEA has an interest in making this such an open process, we would be glad to provide our initial proposals to the press and challenge them to provide theirs.”

Soderman said he didn’t expect the final contract to reflect the proposals he made, such as to reduce the teachers’ sick days from 15 days to 10 days.

“That was in response to the teachers’ proposals that asked for the sick days to be used more liberally. We have an interest in keeping teachers in classrooms. They also asked for bereavement leave for anyone, not just for immediate family members,” he said.

He said the teachers also asked for $65 for every sick day not used instead of the $25 they are paid now; the ability to accumulate sick leave indefinitely; and elimination of any verification of illness when sick days are used.

Soderman said as the contract reads now, the teachers have to provide a doctor’s note when they are absent for three or more days if requested by their site administrator.

“We’re not going to chase down every person who is sick, but if there were patterns, and there have been, like many days off right before Labor Day, they might be asked to show verification,” he said.

He also said other districts’ teacher contracts have provisions about verifying illness.

n Salaries. While Soderman said he believes the teachers deserve a raise, that’s not the issue at hand.

“All employees deserve a salary increase. The district lobbied hard at the Legislature for money for that. The Legislature didn’t come through. This is not an issue of deserving, it is an issue of affording,” he said.

No other employee groups and no administrators have received any salary raises, Soderman said. He said the bus drivers settled without a salary raise, and salary was the only issue the district is going to arbitration about with the food service workers.

At Tuesday’s DCPEA meeting, many teachers spoke about not getting respect from the district, and the association said it would try to effect change through grass-roots action in the form or letter-writing campaigns and picketing outside board meetings.

Douglas High School teacher Randy Green spoke about making the changes the teachers want.

“You can’t sit back and expect other people to do this for you. You can’t expect other people to negotiate your contract for you. That’s what it’s going to take to change things. I know what you are concerned about is what you do in the classroom is not valued,” Green said. “A lot of people in this room I’ve learned a lot from. There are a lot of people I respect who want to leave, and that is a tragedy.”

Soderman said he understands the teachers feel they are not being respected, but feels his commitments are spread out and he can’t focus on just teachers.

“I heard some of that dissatisfaction, and it is probably very real because we are moving to a competency-based system. It is a time of change and there is a lot of work to do. There are a multitude of reasons why there is dissatisfaction among teachers, but that doesn’t mean a new contract would solve it,” he said. “Our responsibility is to look out for students, parents and taxpayers, and not just teachers.”

According to Soderman, a starting teacher with no experience and a bachelor’s degree starts at $28,446 before taxes in Douglas County. At the other end, a teacher with 20 years or more of experience and a master’s degree plus 32 credits earns $52,224 a year. A teacher with a doctorate earns $52,724.

All 458 teachers in the district also receive a 20 percent benefits package that includes health, accident insurance and retirement pay.

The teachers’ contracts were up June 30. Language in the contract and state law does not allow the teachers to strike. The “evergreen” language calls for all teachers to continue to work under the conditions of the expired contract until a new agreement is made.

n Complaint. Randy Cahill from the state teacher’s association is an organization specialist and is supporting the DCPEA in their unfair labor practice complaint against the district.

At the teachers’ meeting, he said he is confident the teachers will receive salary increases because they just have to prove the district has the ability to pay what they are asking, and it is a reasonable request compared to other districts in the state.

However, he said the district first filed an unfair labor practice suit because the process usually takes about four months.

“They are devising this delay so there will be time to move around money from the ending fund balance. In fact, they did take $45,000 from the ending fund balance in December and put it into another fund. We will get to arbitration, we will identify the money, but they have made it a lot more difficult,” he said.

District business manager Rick Kester said he is baffled and angered at those allegations.

“The complaint was filed because the district really believes we didn’t negotiate. In the 20 years I’ve been at the bargaining table, I’ve never seen the process end before it begins. We’ve always had an open-door policy on our books. We didn’t hide any money,” Kester said. “We have a $1 million problem next year. The teachers have $3.5 million of proposals still on the table. We clearly don’t have the ability to fund that.”