Labor-state teachers union in the driver's seat

The last time the Oregon Trail School District entered into contract negotiations three years ago with the Wy’East Education Association (WEA), most people know what the outcome was: a strike that divided the school district and the community.

As the two prepare to negotiate once again, the message from both sides is clear: Things will be different this time around.

“I think that it would be very nice to set a model for the rest of the state,” said Sena Norton, president of the WEA, which represents teachers, counselors, nurses and other certified staff in the school district. “I’m hearing of other places that are very close to going what we went through. It would be nice for Oregon Trail to be suddenly the model of how it can work well. Out of a bad situation comes something that we would be very proud of.”

“I want to make it work because we learn a new way of dealing with one another so that it’s infectious,” said Ken Bucchi, director of human resources for the district. “That way when the negotiations are over, we don’t go back to anything, we just move forward and better what we just did. After we sign the contract is way more important than during it.”

Negotiations are expected to start in mid-January for a new contract that will start at the beginning of the 2008-09 school year. The length of the contract will be determined during negotiations.

Many changes have occurred in the district since the previous negotiations, including a new district superintendent, Shelley Redinger, and the addition of Bucchi.

“Shelley is the reason this whole pace has changed,” said Bucchi. “Shelley brings more than a breath of fresh air; she brings a cyclone of fresh air to this whole thing. She really is all about how do we support and encourage the best teachers we can develop.”

The teachers union’s negotiation team has met every other week and will soon meet every week in preparation for negotiations. The team is composed of two representatives each from the elementary, middle and high school levels.

Team members this year are Steve Snow and Yvonne Stave from elementary schools, Emily Alexander and Tim Zielke from middle schools, and Ramona Nichols and Bill Pence from the high school.

“We’re looking over our entire contract. and our goal is to put together a contract that is going to best serve the needs of the kids of the district by serving the needs of the teachers in the district,” said Snow, who also serves as chairman for the union’s bargaining team.

The team recently completed a survey of its 237 union members to gauge what issues are most important to them for this round of negotiations. The union also gathers information through its executive council, building representatives and various committees, although Snow declined to identify specific issues identified by the survey.

“It’s very important that you listen to those members, and we do,” said Norton. “We know what’s important from them directly from their mouths, what they’re dealing with that might not be known.”

Bucchi noted that when the teachers’ team comes to the table to meet with the district, it will be treated with respect and be given a complete picture of the district’s financial state. He also believes that transparency will bring the union into the fold and make negotiations easier.

“I honestly believe that if the union knows as much as we know about the dollars, they’re going to want to do the right thing with the dollars,” said Bucchi. “I think we’ll all be on the same page if we approach it that way.”

The district is also in the process of reviewing the previous contract and finding places where changes can be made. Bucchi sees a number of areas where the previous administration may have been a little too strict and has already found areas to improve.

“It’s not because we’re being great guys, it’s because I know from experience what works and what doesn’t,” said Bucchi. “There are just things I can find we can loosen up on and be fair and treat teachers as professionals they are.”

Only three of the seven board members served during the strike in 2004, but the current composition of the board has impressed upon the teachers a desire to understand their needs and situation.

“I do see a board that is willing to hear information and use that information,” said Norton. “That’s a positive.”

“They do really care,” said Bucchi about the board. “I think they really do want a radical change in the relationship; they want a good relationship.”


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