Unions say alleged improprieties no reason to delay contract talks

School district probe continues

Posted: Thursday, April 25, 2002

The status of upcoming contract talks between the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and two employee unions is still uncertain following an alleged security breach in the school district's e-mail system.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Board of Education met behind closed doors Wednesday night to discuss how the alleged breach could impact the already contentious negotiations between the district and teacher and support worker unions, which claim no knowledge of the allegations and confusion over why talks might be affected.

More than one employee of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District had been placed on administrative leave by Wednesday and investigation of the security breach will continue throughout the week, said district Superintendent Donna Peterson.

The next round of negotiations between the district and the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association is scheduled for Monday and Tuesday. The district, however, maintains that because some of the e-mails it alleges were intercepted were confidential memos dealing with the negotiation, bargaining talks may have been tainted.

"We have to make a decision whether or not to continue (negotiations) without completing the investigation," school board member Joe Arness, spokesperson for the administration's negotiating team, said Wednesday afternoon. "We are meeting tonight to decide what we're going to do next."

The teacher and support staff associations, however, maintain that no one on the negotiating teams for either KPEA or KPESA has any knowledge of the intercepted e-mails.

"As far as we're concerned, the investigation doesn't have anything to do with bargaining. There's no reason not to continue bargaining," said Cathy Carrow, KPEA vice president. "I haven't seen any of the e-mails in question. Neither have any other members (of the negotiating teams). No one has had a verbal discussion as to what may or may not have been in the e-mail. It doesn't have to have any effect on the negotiating process."

Carrow said she didn't understand the relationship between the security breach and the negotiations.

"The people under investigation I know are not on the bargaining team. I don't know why the connection to the bargaining team," she said. "Obviously (administrators) know the content of the e-mail, but I don't know."

Furthermore, she questioned the role of any intercepted e-mail in the bargaining process.

"I don't want to sound callous -- if someone was doing something they shouldn't have been doing, I don't want to condone that," Carrow said. "But part of what we do when we teach students is tell them that you don't put anything in an e-mail that you wouldn't put on a postcard.

"So what in the world is in this thing?"

Donna Peterson, district superintendent, also admitted that she knew e-mail was not an entirely confidential system.

"Anytime I write an e-mail, I expect it to be subpoenaed, that I'm going to see it in court," Peterson said. "I understand it's a written document, but it is still confidential in nature. I expect the person I'm sending it to to see it, I'm not expecting another person to see it."

Arness added, "Communications that are held between board members and district administrators by e-mail, telephone, whatever, have to have some modicum of privilege.

"We use e-mail to exchange ideas. The fact that access was gained creates a situation where our exchange of information was interrupted."

Peterson said that the investigation would not be completed until Friday afternoon at the earliest, because the district is interviewing all employees who may have been involved in the alleged security breach. Each interview may lead to information that extends the investigation.

"We continue to interview anyone we have reason to interview and make a decision whether or not to put them on administrative leave," she said.

She explained that administrative leave is not necessarily an indication of wrong-doing, but that it would mean that the investigation yielded some evidence. Several employees who have been interviewed have not been placed on leave.

She said Wednesday, though, that more than one district employee has been placed on administrative leave in the case, including someone who is "tied very closely to (union) leadership."

"I still maintain that it is likely that there is a connection (between the breach and negotiations), but it's up to (the school district) to prove that link," Peterson said.

While both Peterson and Arness said the district will decide later in the week whether to delay negotiation talks, Carrow said the unions will be at the table ready to bargain as scheduled.

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