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School district outlines negotiations progress

by Merrie Leininger

With the disclaimer that he felt fighting out contract negotiations with teachers in public was the “equivalent of mud wrestling,” Douglas County School District Personnel Director John Soderman presented a negotiations update to the school board at Tuesday night’s meeting at Kingsbury Middle School.

Soderman said although the teacher’s union representatives at that bargaining table and the district’s negotiating team agreed at an early meeting not to discuss the process with the media, the Douglas County Professional Teachers Association had broken that vow and “forced us to see we need to show our view of what happened.”

Soderman gave an overview of the negotiations that began in February 1999 and essentially ended when the teachers’ representatives declared impasse 11 months later. Soderman also said the teachers notified the district they would like to begin contract negotiations for next year. He said if teachers want to have contract negotiations, they must notify the district by February. However, that cannot begin until this year’s contract is settled.

Board clerk Cheri Johnson told the audience she wanted to make it clear this was not the first time the board had been apprised of negotiations progress, but had been involved every step of the way.

“(John Soderman has) taken direction from us. Filing the unfair labor practice complaint was a unanimous decision. (Contract negotiations) is something a lay person doesn’t normally do. But we’ve taken pride in the contracts we’ve had,” she said.

Soderman said the negotiating team for the district – Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School Principal Charlie Condron, Pinon Hills Elementary School Principal Nancy Bryant and DCSD Business Services Director Rick Kester – were all advocates of teachers and feel teachers deserve everything they should get. However, he said, the teachers negotiating team, which was led by C.C. Meneley Elementary School teacher Susan Lacey, set the tone for all future meetings when they accused DCSD of bad faith bargaining. The teachers, he said, wanted to have mutual exchange of contract proposals. Soderman said of Nevada school districts he surveyed, 10 said their teachers always presented their contract proposals first because they were the “moving party,” or the group that originally opened negotiations. Soderman said four school districts said they did occasionally have mutual exchange. The DCSD has not done mutual exchange for 20 years.

“Mutual exchange requires a kind of trust that was made a totally unrealistic prospect by the tone they set,” he said.

Other communication problems drew out the negotiations and created more bad feelings between the two groups, he said.

During public comment, DCPEA spokesperson Marty Cronin admitted that, as he looks back on the situation, problems could have been eliminated with better communication.

Soderman said the district’s team was threatened on more than one occasion with an unfair labor dispute claim, so when the teachers declared impasse in December and then offered to go to mediation, the district said no. Soderman admitted going to an arbitrator isn’t going to improve relations because he or she will chose one side’s full package over the other and that decision is binding.

“We’d just rather have the (state Employee Management Relations Board) make this decision. We can’t envision another time of ending up in arbitration with 48 virtually untouched proposals on the table. We don’t ever want to have to go through this again,” Soderman said.

He said the district is confident the labor board will rule in its favor.

“We really did believe we were just at the beginning of negotiations. Counters are how you start to know how to negotiate. You give something and you get something. Arbitration should be after you do the work and narrow the proposals to one or two. But going to arbitration with 48 proposals is absurd,” he said.

Lacey said the teachers’ intentions were not to set a bad tone, but to get what the teachers wanted.

“There are seven teachers on the team. We work for the teachers. The things we came to you with were determined to be very high needs according to a survey we did of the teachers,” she said.

She said the teachers association had urged the negotiating team to be more aggressive, so when the district presented its “insulting” counter proposals, they left.

“Our thinking was, let an arbitrator decide this and hopefully, speed it up a little. Obviously, we can’t talk, we can’t come to an agreement,” she said.