Union, school district settle

The drama ended happily Sunday in Oak Harbor as the Public School Employees union and school district were able to agree on a four-year contract and avert a strike set to begin Monday.

Hundreds of kids may have been hoping for some time away for school, but parents heaved a collective sigh of relief when it was announced late Sunday afternoon that an agreement had been reached.

The two sides spent seven hours Sunday hammering out a contract. Union members have been working without a contract since their previous one expired Aug. 31, 2007. The PSE union represents school district support staff including bus drivers, instructional assistants, maintenance staff and food service workers. Had they walked out, there likely would have been no school.

The union negotiating team was appreciative of the tone the final session took.

“They heard our complaints and they absolutely wanted to work with us on it,” said Tom Coe, union spokesman. He added that the presence of Superintendent Rick Schulte at the talks helped make the final day of negotiating conciliatory and civil.

Schulte said he participated in the negotiations because he felt a new perspective was needed. He also added that a state member from PSE also joined the Sunday session.

The sides agreed to a four-year contract, which is a year longer than previous contracts.

There were a couple of employees picketing in front of Oak Harbor Middle School where the negotiations took place.

Union membership approved the contract Monday evening with 187 voting yes and only 15 in opposition. Coe said that was one of the best-attended union meetings he’s ever seen.

The agreement includes state-mandated cost-of-living allowances provided each year and an average 4.5 percent raise during the first two years, 1 percent in the third year, and 2 percent in the fourth year.

In prior offers, the school district and the union differed by $300,000 in their respective proposals. School District Communications Director Joe Hunt said it’s difficult to compare the approved offer to previous offers because of the length of the contract. Previous offers were based on a three-year term while the current one is based on four years.

Schulte said that union members are already halfway through the first year of the contract.

Coe said that the raise written into the fourth year is contingent on voter approval the school district’s maintenance and operations levy. He said that was an appropriate action to take because approximately 54 percent of union position are funded through levy dollars. The next levy is scheduled to go before voters in 2009.

The difference in previous offers was based on the amount of a raise union members would receive in the third year. The union wanted 3 percent while the school district wanted no raise, Hunt said.

One new benefit is $5,000 earmarked to assist classified employees who go through professional development. Though small, Coe said it’s a sign of respect for the jobs they do.

Also, administrators and union members will form a salary committee before the next contract negotiations to figure out what the comparable salaries are compared to similar school districts. That was a major sticking point in the negotiations.

Schulte pointed out that union members received a pay raise that was higher than the state raise. Because the school district isn’t receiving any extra funding, there could be some cutbacks coming as officials start balancing the 2008-2009 budget.

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