One of the most important issues, maybe the most important issue, facing the Kenai Peninsula Borough in the weeks and months ahead is the upcoming negotiations between the school district and its teachers and support staff.
What's at stake reaches beyond dollars-and-cents issues and concerns such as class size and student-teacher-school performance to matters of integrity -- the integrity of the process, the integrity of the community. How much do citizens really care about the school system, its workers and the students entrusted to the district to educate?
It is because so much is at stake that the upcoming negotiations should be open to the public. Completely. Here's why:
It may sound trite, but the public really does deserve to know. Not only is the school district a public entity, but it's public money that pays for education. If that's not enough to entitle public access to the negotiations, then how's this: Whatever is done in those negotiations ultimately will affect students -- the future of our community.
Open is better. Open negotiations will mean less posturing and more cutting to the chase by all involved. The public won't have to depend on a contrived press release needing the approval of both sides to figure out what happened. The public can hear for itself what issues are on the table without having to sort through any side's particular spin.
Open negotiations offer a great learning opportunity. The different sides should look at the upcoming talks as a perfect teaching moment. It's a chance to educate the public about the realities of being a classroom teacher. It's a chance to educate the public about the realities of paying for education.
Open negotiations can pave the way toward a better understanding among the public of the tough issues facing the school district and its employees. If a simple solution were possible, it would have been done before the frustration levels that are leading to talk of "extreme job action" were reached. The more citizens understand the issues, the better equipped they are to become instruments toward a solution. This, after all, is the public's business.
Open negotiations will be more civil. Already there's talk about the potential for the talks to be contentious, even nasty. That's less likely to be the case if the negotiations are in the public eye -- even if that public eye is one reporter. Nobody wants to star as "the jerk" in reports about the progress of negotiations. No one's interest -- least of all, the public's -- will be helped by rude, outrageous behavior or demands during the process.
Open negotiations will increase the public's confidence in the process -- and, consequently, the public confidence in the outcome. That can only set a great example for the rest of the state when it comes to dealing with difficult issues. How can that be a bad thing?
The bottom line is these negotiations aren't just about a particular group's wages or benefits, they are about public education, which is most definitely the public's business. There's no reason any part of the negotiations should take place in secret. When the different sides meet for a preliminary negotiating session next Friday, this is one issue they can dispense with quickly. The public's interest is best served by negotiations that take place in the open. Completely.
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