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School union authorizes strike

If there isn’t significant progress with contract negotiations between the Oak Harbor School District and the 282-member Public School Employees union, there could be a strike.

Union members took a step closer to a strike when they overwhelmingly approved a pre-strike authorization during a Tuesday evening membership meeting.

“That tells us members are willing to back us if we have to push harder on the district,” said Carl Leonard, PSE union president. Members approved the measure 147-23.

There are several issues the union and the district haven’t agreed upon since negotiations started in April 2004.

The union wants several of its positions to be brought up to the state average for similarly-sized school districts. Bus drivers earn 2.6 percent below the state average and maintenance employees earn a wage that is 6.7 percent below average, according to a release from PSE.

Another issue concerns employees’ ability to transfer jobs within the school district. The school district wants employees to remain in a job a minimum of six months to recoup training costs. Union officials want employees to keep the ability to transfer jobs when higher-paying positions offering more hours come open.

“The members expressed extreme displeasure with the position the school district has taken on those two issues,” Leonard said.

Employees are working on a one-year extension that automatically kicked in when their contract expired Aug. 31. Later in the year, a state mediator attended negotiating sessions to help reach an amicable agreement. However, talks broke down in January and the two sides haven’t met since.

The Oak Harbor School Board met in an executive session Thursday evening with the negotiating team to discuss the situation.

Joe Hunt, communications director for the Oak Harbor School District, said the two sides are going to try and schedule a meeting early next week, however both sides haven’t agreed on a date yet.

The school board “is pretty confident that there’ll be a resolution in the next couple of weeks,” Hunt said.

Superintendent Rick Schulte echoed Hunt’s statements and hopes meetings will take place again early next week.

Sign-wielding union members have periodically appeared on busy street corners in town to rally community support for their position. PSE union has also advertised in local newspapers.

Leonard said members will picket the school district’s administration building again on Feb. 28 before the next regularly-scheduled school board meeting.

He said he wants to have an acceptable union contract for members to decide upon by the end of the month. Should that deadline not be met, the members will decide whether to strike.

Hunt said district officials haven’t discussed how to deal with a potential strike and that the board hopes an agreement can be reached.

“That actually hasn’t been discussed yet,” Hunt said.

Schulte said this is the first time in his 12 years as superintendent that a strike has been threatened.

Should the Public School Employees Union decide to strike, Leonard said the union would provide some notification for when the strike would begin. That way, parents would have time to prepare.

The Oak Harbor Education Association, which represents teachers in the school district, recommended that schools be closed if the support staff don’t show up for work. The teachers’ union is concerned that it isn’t safe for schools to operate without PSE union employees.

Peter Szalai, president of the teachers’ union, said during a recent school board meeting, that the school district should settle with PSE as soon as possible and before the March 8 levy vote.

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