Contract talks should resume quickly with larger goal in mind

Posted: Friday, April 26, 2002

The ongoing contract talks between the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and unions representing its teachers and support workers appear to have reached a new low this week with allegations from school district officials that e-mailed messages between administration and school board members were intercepted by a third party or parties.

Schools Superintendent Donna Peterson has said she considers the alleged security breach to be a serious matter, especially since, according to her, at least one of the people involved has close ties to the unions' negotiating team. The suggestion, of course, is that the confidential messages have somehow compromised the district's position at the bargaining table, and the administration is threatening to postpone the next round of negotiations, scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, because of it.

The charge is, indeed, a serious one. As Peterson correctly noted when the alleged security breach was discovered, it is a stunning violation of trust. And if the ongoing investigation proves the charge to be true, it should be handled in a manner equivalent to its seriousness. Further, if the charge is true and, as Peterson contends, it is also part of a larger union plot to gain an advantage at the bargaining table, a "simple" violation of trust will become bad faith bargaining and take on much larger and, sadly, uglier significance.

Thus far, the union team has professed ignorance of the matter and is frustrated that it should be used as a means of delaying negotiations, which already have engendered no shortage of ill will between the sides. They are right to question the contents of the messages in question. After all, what could possibly have been contained in a handful of e-mails that would be so damaging as to subvert the negotiating process?

Lost in all the controversy is what everyone on both sides of the bargaining table professes to be their first priority -- quality education for the children of the Kenai Peninsula. This is, perhaps, the saddest sidebar to the story, and all citizens should be concerned.

Teachers and support workers -- already unhappy after years of losing real-dollar value in their salaries and benefits, and weary of being told with each new contract that "next time" things will improve for them -- are right to be frustrated about the possibility of negotiations being postponed. Teachers -- like administrators --are public employees, and their taxpayer-funded contracts are public information. Control over the negotiating process, then, should never be hijacked by one side. By holding closed-door school board meetings and effectively controlling the dissemination of information about the incident, the administration runs the risk of casting itself as judge, jury and executioner.

There is nothing fair or democratic about that.

Peterson said it is up to the district to prove its charges. We agree. But only to a point. If the administration wants to handle the investigation as a confidential "in-house" personnel matter, it has that right. But as long as the administration is persistent in tying the unfolding controversy to a delay in contract talks, it should show just cause for the delay by being more forthcoming with information. Otherwise, it, too, will risk losing credibility, and the pendulum of bad-faith bargaining will swing the other way.

It is our hope that negotiations can resume with a minimum of acrimony. We urge both sides to remember the children and the goal of quality education, and get back to the business of good faith bargaining without delay.

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