Hours before three new School Board members took office this month, union leaders declared an impasse in contract negotiations. Teachers and other school employees had gone three years without raises. The union had lobbied for raises out of the federal stimulus dollars that Pasco schools received. The district refused.
The impasse is about more than raises, though. It's about the way the federal Edujobs funding is being spent — or isn't. District officials have said they will use the $14 million to forestall a furlough and to pay the salaries of several positions, but that they intend to set aside a similar amount for next year to avert layoffs. The union considers that move a budgetary sleight of hand, noting Congress said the money should not be used as a rainy day fund or to supplant other funding sources.
United School Employees of Pasco president Lynne Webb recently spoke with the Times about the impasse declaration.
You did file the impasse on the same day the School Board was being sworn in. Some of the board members wanted to know why you did it then.
The timing I would have to say is more coincidental. That was not by design to do it the day they were being sworn in. We had been having conversations back and forth since we had gone back to the table. ... We were trying to get some sense from the district what kind of message they were going to convey to the board members, and whether there was any chance that the superintendent would go to the board with an open mind. And we came away with the impression, no. There really was very little wiggle room on the superintendent's part and the board's part. So from our perspective, we almost felt like it wouldn't be fair to the new board to get them all up to speed and have them take a position so we could go back to the table when we already know what the superintendent's recommendation is going to be.
So when you go to impasse you basically take it off the table and put it to a mediator. Doesn't that lengthen the process rather than shorten the process?
Let me first of all correct you. It's a hearing officer. That's not a mediator. So what it is, is somebody impartial who listens to both sides and weighs all the facts and the evidence. It's actually a hearing where we will present information about the Edujobs bill, the district's budget, so on and so forth. And this person makes a recommendation. We feel it's an opportunity for the board to actually have somebody from the outside, not just have to rely on the superintendent and her staff, for their information.
And once that is over, isn't the end still with the School Board? They get to make the final decision.
Yes it is. They get to accept or reject the hearing officer's recommendation. That's why it is called a recommended order. And then based upon what they decide, it still goes to the bargaining units for ratification, believe it or not.
What if they say no?
If they say no, then it goes back to the board and the board has to decide another time whether they want to impose or not. If they impose it, then the contract is only in effect until the very end of the year, and it doesn't go back to be retroactive. So it becomes in effect for a very narrow window of opportunity.
To be truthful with you, we don't feel the teachers and (school-related personnel) have a lot to lose. We felt that we stand a better chance having someone from the outside take a look at all this information and make a recommendation to the board. Somebody who doesn't have an axe to grind. ... We think a new board would welcome the opportunity to hear from an outsider what the best position is, the superintendent's or the union's.
Do you think you're going to get an agreement with the board before it comes to the point of any sort of imposed settlement?
I don't know. This is a new board. We've barely heard 10 words out of them. It certainly would be my hope. If the district would like to sit down with a mediator, as long as that doesn't affect our timelines with impasse, we are more than willing to do that, if there is some way we can have a meeting of the minds. So this new board does have a way to say to the superintendent, "We want you to do everything you can to settle this." Then we could sit down at mediation and see if there's some compromise. But I'm going to be truthful with you. I don't think our demands are unrealistic.
I guess now it's up to the hearing officer. Is one chosen yet?
No. We're waiting for the Public Employee Relations Commission to send us a list. ... It's not something we relish doing. But it's what we see as our best option at this time.