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Public school employees work without contract

On Aug. 31 the contract between the Oak Harbor School District and the Public School Employees union expired.

Since then the two sides have been negotiating a new contract while union members, who hold support positions such as bus drivers and custodians, continue to work under terms of the last contract.

Not surprisingly, pay is the major sticking point in this year’s round of negotiations.

The union wants wages brought closer to the average wage similar employees in other districts receive. However, the two sides have different numbers on what that amount should be.

“Their numbers for salaries aren’t the same,” said Tom Coe, a school district employee who is also a member of the PSE negotiating team this year.

The union has been working for the past several contracts to bring wages up to levels comparable to other school districts, but hasn’t made much progress.

Linda Preder, PSE union co-president, said the union has tried in the past to improve wages in targeted job categories by spreading the increases out over the three-year contract. That effort didn’t improve the situation.

“It didn’t work. In fact it made other groups fall behind as well,” said Preder during last week’s school board meeting.

The two sides are set to meet again this week and negotiators for both the school district and the union have said talks have been going well, although Preder charged the school district is using the state-mandated 3.7 percent raise as a bargaining chip.

Rick Schulte, superintendent of schools, said the union members haven’t received the raise because the sides haven’t agreed to the salary schedule yet. He added the raises may not be the same for everybody.

While the state required that employees receive a cost of living increase, it didn’t provide funding to cover all employees. The state provides funding for approximately 88 employees while the school district currently employs approximately 120. Some of those employees aren’t necessarily PSE members.

Coe spoke to the school board about the school district hiring two attorneys for the union negotiations and said Oak Harbor is the only one in the state doing that.

Schulte said the school district has always hired a lawyer to help with union negotiations. The second attorney participating is an intern. The attorney hired also represents 25 other school districts.

It’s been a difficult year for the support staff, some of whom lost their jobs during a budget shortfall. Those cutbacks have impacted staff as they scramble to deal with the extra work.

Cathy Fakkema, secretary and data processor, said the high school lost two secretaries and the career/college advisor. She said one person has taken on the added duties of two people and she questioned the school board about the plan to provide career and college guidance to students.

The sides meet again this week to discuss the contract.

This situation isn’t new for the school district. The last time the PSE contract expired three years ago, it took approximately six months for the sides to hash out new terms. By then, a mediator had been brought in and the union had voted to authorize a strike.

Coe said, however, that a strike is the last thing in the world that union members want to consider.

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