KPEA: Unfair practices claim unfounded

Posted: Thursday, June 06, 2002

An unfair labor practices complaint against the Kenai Peninsula Education Association is unfounded and should be dismissed, the association told the Alaska Labor Relations Agency this week.

The association filed a response to the original complaint from the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Monday, stating the district has contradicted its own allegations, failed to take responsibility for its role in the negative bargaining atmosphere and mischaracterized district employees accused of involvement in an e-mail security breach as KPEA members.

The district filed the original complaint with the agency May 15, alleging that KPEA members had received an unfair advantage in ongoing contract negotiations by intercepting and distributing confidential e-mails between district administrators and school board members. The district also maintained the security breach had resulted in a loss of trust and good will between bargaining teams and asked the agency to delay contract talks for another year to let the air clear.

Alaska Labor Relations Agency investigator Jean Ward said she will continue to seek evidence in the case and try to broker an informal resolution between the parties. The case has been assigned a high priority, Ward said, and should take a matter of weeks. If an informal resolution is not possible, the case will go to a formal hearing.

Union leadership was unavailable for comment Wednesday, but the KPEA's written statement to the agency noted the district has repeatedly assured KPEA negotiating team members that the integrity of the team was not in question and has willingly continued to participate in contract negotiations with a joint KPEA-Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association bargaining team.

That undermines the credibility of the district's complaint, the association wrote.

Joe Arness, a school board member and spokesperson for the district's negotiating team, said Wednesday that there is a difference between suspecting members of the union's negotiating team and members of the union of wrongdoing.

"We don't question the integrity of the appointed negotiating team," Arness said. "But that doesn't mean there are not problems with members of the association."

For example, explained district superintendent Donna Peterson, KPEA president Hans Bilben has publicly admitted to being one of three district employees disciplined for involvement in the e-mail breach. Bilben does not sit at the bargaining table but still holds sway in the union's decision-making process.

Bilben's alleged involvement does not mean members of the negotiating team are in the wrong, but it may mean the negotiating process has been compromised, Arness said.

An impartial third-party investigation is necessary, he said, because by conducting its own investigation, the district is playing the roles of wronged party, judge and jury.

"It was a no-win situation," Arness said. "No matter what we found, we were going to be wrong."

The involvement of the Labor Relations Agency will allow the district to find out what happened and then decide whether further action is necessary, he said.

KPEA also alleged that the district holds equal responsibility for any loss of good will and trust between the bargaining teams.

"Prior to the e-mail incident, there was little good will or trust between the parties," the association wrote. Teachers already were upset because the district was not recognizing their economic needs and because they were required to turn in building keys at the end of the school year -- a practice never-before implemented, KPEA said.

"Whatever lack of good will and trust exists had its onset before the circumstances that the district so falsely seizes here," the association wrote.

Finally, KPEA alleged that the district's complaint is misdirected. Though the three individuals who were internally disciplined for the e-mail breach have been identified as teachers, the KPEA said the one being investigated for criminal charges is not a KPEA member.

Peterson said that distinction is not valid. In the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, teachers have the option of whether to become voting members of the union. Those who do not vote pay slightly lower association dues. Whether teachers are voting members of the union or not, however, they are all still represented by the union in disciplinary situations or collective bargaining.

KPEA maintains that no members of its bargaining team saw confidential e-mails pertaining to the negotiation process and that the district has offered no solid details or proof of wrongdoing by the association.

The written statement to the labor agency argues that the teams have made progress in the bargaining process since the filing of the complaint and that the delay requested by the district will only exacerbate negative feelings between the district and its employees.

In the meantime, Soldotna police Sgt. Tod McGillivray has completed an investigation of one of the individuals allegedly responsible for intercepting confidential e-mails in early April. McGillivray said he will forward a report to the district attorney by Friday.

The individual, who still has not been identified, could face felony charges of criminal use of a computer. McGillivray said he expects the district attorney to bring the case before a grand jury in the next couple of weeks.

The negotiating teams also have continued meeting despite the conflict. They have tentatively agreed to most nonfinancial contract points and will continue tackling teacher and support staff salary and benefit issues at the next round of negotiations. Due to schedule conflicts, the teams have yet to agree to a date for the talks.

Contracts are due to expire June 30.

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