Employees start school without contract

The local Public School Employees union and the Oak Harbor School District are turning to a state mediator to help resolve several issues for the union’s new three-year contract.

The union, which represents approximately 285 employees such as instructional assistants, food service workers and bus drivers, has been working without a contract since it expired Aug. 31.

There are several dominant issues that have to be resolved before a contract can be approved. Those issues range from higher wages and more affordable health insurance to more support for employee training.

“We’ve met with the district for quite a while and haven’t made any significant headway on issues that affect our members,” said Tony Silveira, president of the Oak Harbor Public School Employees Union. He is a maintenance employee for the district.

School district and union officials have met 13 times since last April but haven’t reached any kind of agreement.

“We both recognize that we weren’t making any progress in our negotiations,” said Rick Schulte, superintendent of the Oak Harbor School District. He said bringing in a mediator would be a more constructive way to move forward.

Schulte said that if the district accepted the union’s proposal, it would represent a 30-percent increase in costs. The school district’s package represents a 2-percent increase in costs. The school district pays approximately $5 million annually for classified staff.

The union wants employee wages to be brought up to a comparable level as those in neighboring or similar-sized school districts. An example from a recent union survey is that technical employees can earn as much as $7 an hour less in Oak Harbor than in similar school districts.

“We’re not trying to get above, we’re just trying to get to the average,” Silviera said.

Schulte however, said some of the school districts shouldn’t have been used for comparison. He pointed out that wealthier districts in Seattle, Tacoma and Mercer Island were used in the survey.

He added that the school district provided a total of $240,000 in wage increases over the last two contracts.

The union also wants to receive the same health insurance benefits as administrators and teachers. The issue here is a how much of a monthly insurance allocation classified workers receive. That allocation helps offset the state charge to provide retirement health benefits.

Schulte said the school district offered to phase in an increase over the duration of the next contract.

“We were the first ones to bring that to them,” Schulte said.

In the area of training, the union wants a stipend for para-educators to help meet new federal requirements. Silviera said that the new requirements were set as part of the No Child Left Behind Act. The union wants payments on first-aid and in-service training for bus drivers.

Schulte said the school district originally offered a 50 cent per hour increase for para-educators but cut that in half to offer the insurance allocation.

He added the school district doesn’t pay for first aid training for bus drivers.

The mediator from the state Public Employment Relations Commission will be brought in for negotiations. A date in which the two sides can meet hasn’t been set yet.

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