Union members descend upon school board

Public School Employees union workers clad in blue shirts descended upon the Monday evening Oak Harbor School Board meeting to talk about the ongoing contract talks.

Union workers in support positions such as bus drivers, para-educators, secretaries and maintenance staff, have been working without a contract since Aug. 31. Both sides have agreed to bring in a mediator to help resolve issues.

The union members stood outside with informational pickets and in the lobby of the district’s administration building prior to the meeting to greet the public and board members.

PSE and the school district met with a mediator last week, after which the union submitted a contract offer to the school district. It is still awaiting the district’s response.

Linda Preder, co-president of the Oak Harbor PSE union, said the members will vote Jan. 24 on either a contract offer or a strike authorization.

Contentious issues include salaries, cost of living increases and affordable health insurance.

Superintendent Rick Schulte said school officials are reviewing the union’s latest proposal and that it appears constructive and will lead to more talks. The two sides are scheduled to meet again Thursday.

The union members took turns speaking during the Monday evening meeting.

They spoke about their various financial struggles, ranging from paying for their children’s college expenses to dealing with rising gas prices and buying braces for their children, or just paying everyday expenses.

Kris Owens, PSE member working at North Whidbey Middle School, questioned why the impasse still exists after the school district and the union have had 17 meetings since negotiations started last May.

“There have been serious and heavy-hearted discussions,” Owens said. “The members will be forced to use extreme means to show their solidarity and steadfastness.”

Kathy Fakkema said that PSE members were the only district employees not to receive cost of living raises.

“We believe this to be an unfair and discriminating decision on your behalf,” Fakkema said.

Preder said the union members were the primary employees who lost hours and positions during last year’s budget reductions and it’s only fair they receive an average wage increase.

Schulte said that the mediator is still willing to meet with both sides and that in itself is a sign of progress.

He warned that a strike by the union employees couldn’t possibly be constructive and that it would have a negative impact on students and families.

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