Deals about deals

School Board, teachers union negotiate

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Sizeable differences separate the Steamboat Springs teachers union and the School Board as the two sides begin to negotiate a new agreement covering salaries and benefits.

Representatives from both sides met Thursday, but the meeting appears to have accomplished little more than allowing the Steamboat Springs Education Association to air its concerns about existing circumstances within the district and its conditions for a new contract agreement with the School Board.

It's undetermined what bargaining process will be used to reach a new agreement.

"We're at a point where we're negotiating about negotiations," SSEA vice president Tom Fitzgerald said. "We're trying to figure out what's going to work best."

Several high-ranking SSEA members said teachers want the collaborative bargaining process to be facilitated by an outside mediator, to include negotiation of all policies related to salaries, fringe benefits and working conditions, and to make any eventual agreement legally binding, among other conditions.

In past years, the district only has negotiated policies relating to salaries and fringe benefits, not working conditions.

The SSEA's conditions don't appear to be agreeable to the School Board.

School Board President Paula Stephenson and Superintendent Donna Howell said they're not interested in negotiating a legally binding master agreement with district employees.

"The School Board has no desire to enter into a master contract," Stephenson said Friday.

Master agreements or contracts typically are legally binding contracts that cover a wide range of employee-related issues such as salaries, benefits and working conditions. Stephenson said master contracts have the effect of slowly eroding the School Board's ability to make the best decisions for the district.

"What happens when you start getting into binding agreements is you tie the hands of district officials from doing what may be in the best interests of the district," Stephenson said.

All master agreements have provisions that allow for specific policies or concerns to be addressed in a timely manner, Fitzgerald said.

"We're not looking to cripple anybody," Fitzgerald said. "We're just looking to protect ourselves."

The SSEA has pushed for a master agreement before, but its resolve appears to have hardened as concerns about School Board actions have increased.

According to some SSEA members, the School Board has unilaterally altered existing negotiated policies, such as the one involving the scrapped Knowledge and Skills Based Pay system, without first consulting with teachers.

Howell and the School Board adamantly deny those claims.

SSEA President Brad Kindred said teachers want a contract that prevents policies from being changed at School Board meetings.

But with the School Board apparently unwilling to discuss a master agreement and negotiate policies dealing with all working conditions, the teachers union may be forced to make a decision regarding how it wants to proceed.

"That's one of the things we have to wrestle with as an organization," Fitzgerald said.

The interim salary schedule that teachers and support staff are working under expires at the end of the school year, and both sides hope a new agreement is in place before school lets out.

Thursday's meeting didn't do much to bring the two sides closer.

"We left yesterday saying we'll have to go back and have a discussion at the board level about what our non-negotiable items are," Stephenson said. "I was really disheartened yesterday from what I heard."

A meeting between district officials and SSEA leaders is scheduled for the middle of the month.

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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