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School union talks stall

Since April 2004, the Oak Harbor School District and the Public School Employees union have been negotiating a new contract.

Those negotiations ended in early January without a contract being approved and without further meeting times being scheduled.

“We haven’t accepted PSE’s offer and PSE hasn’t accepted our offer,” said Rick Schulte, superintendent of the Oak Harbor School District.

The contract expired in August 2004 and the 282 employees represented by the union have been working under a one-year contract extension until a new agreement is hashed out.

“It’s kind of disheartening,” said Jim Bockman, a member of PSE’s negotiating team. “We’re not asking for more, we just want a fair contract.”

He said that the current contract offer is $31,000 less than the previous contract employees worked under.

The major disagreement lies between wages and how much of a raise certain employees will receive.

The school district offered to pay raises for positions that are at least $1 an hour below the state average. Those positions range from computer network technicians to grounds and maintenance workers.

The school district is proposing additional raises ranging from 0.5 percent to 1.5 percent over the next three years. That would be in addition to any cost of living increases the legislature may require the school district to make, according to information from the Oak Harbor School District.

However, Bockman said the proposal doesn’t do enough to help employees who are far below the state average. Some positions, such as workers in information services, are almost 35 percent below the state average, the union claims. Bockman added that administrators and teachers are closer to state average in pay even though the Public School Employees have a crucial role in the operation of the school district.

The school district and the union do have a memorandum of understanding, approved in 2002, where the two entities will work together to pay union employees a fair and competitive wage structure. PSE represents a variety of employees including bus drivers, secretaries, ground and maintenance positions and instructional assistants. Currently the school district pays $5.5 million in salaries and benefits to Public School Employees.

In addition to the difference in wages, there is also a disagreement with a provision concerning part-time employees. The school district wants such employees to work a position a minimum of six months before they are allowed to bid on a new one.

Human Resources Director Mellody Mathes said this provision allows the school district to recoup money and resource invested in training employees. Bockman argues that employees should be able to move to positions that provide the most hours and the highest wage.

The school district and the union have been negotiating a new contract since last April. In October, a mediator was brought in to help with negotiations. After the last meeting, however, the mediator declined to return after the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement, Schulte said.

Bockman said the union made two offers during that meeting. Both were rejected.

Schulte said it would be difficult for the school district to increase the contract offer. Even though early in the budget process, the Oak Harbor School District may have to make approximately $1 million in cuts in the 2005-2006 school year budget.

Those possible cuts are caused by reductions in funding combined with an increase in costs.

Schulte said the school district could see a $500,000 to $800,000 reduction in federal Impact Aid next school year. He said that trend could continue in coming years as Homeland Security, the war in Iraq and the deficit are priorities at the federal level.

The school district is also seeing an increase in employee retirement costs and the Legislature may direct a cost of living increase for all school district employees this year. The legislature, however, will only cover half of the pay increase while the school district has to come up with the rest, Schulte said.

There currently isn’t another date to continue negotiations. Both Bockman and Schulte said they don’t know what would happen if the one-year extension expires without a new contract in place.

In the meantime, PSE recently place ads in local newspapers to rally support in the community about their situation.

Bockman said union members will bring pickets to the administration building on Monday, Jan. 31 during the next regularly-scheduled school board meeting.

A union meeting is scheduled in February where a preliminary strike vote could be held. Bockman said the meeting is primarily to prepare and inform union members about the situation.

He dismissed any talk of a possible strike and hopes a contract can be worked out before such an option is considered.

“We don’t want to even look at that,” Bockman said.

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