The Tukwila School Board voted last week to allow the public to attend contract negotiations with the district’s five employee unions.
Contract negotiations between Washington school districts and employee unions have traditionally been held behind closed doors, with details — if any are released before the two sides reach agreement — outlined in dueling news releases. But in the Tukwila School District, those negotiations will soon be open to the public.
Citing a desire for more transparency, the Tukwila School Board voted last week to hold public contract talks with the district’s five employee unions, including those representing teachers, custodians and principals. Union leaders, however, questioned why they weren’t involved in the decision and wondered what implications it could have on future negotiations.
Tukwila is the first district in Western Washington to adopt such a resolution. The Pullman School District was the first in the state to do so earlier this year.
Those who attend the meetings will only be able to watch, not participate. And the decision doesn’t apply to the negotiations already underway with the union representing athletic coaches and others involved in extracurricular activities.
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The district thinks that open negotiations will increase the credibility and transparency of both the district and the unions, said T.C. Wallace, interim executive director of human resources and labor relations.
But union representatives weren’t consulted before the school board’s vote, which Washington teachers union spokesman Rich Wood called disrespectful.
“That’s the concern, that it was done without consultation with the very employees who are affected and partners in that collective-bargaining process,” he said.
Tukwila union members didn’t know about the resolution until they saw it listed on a board agenda, said Tukwila Education Association President Brian Seigel. The Tukwila teachers union’s contract isn’t up for negotiations until 2019.
The issue came up so fast that the union is still trying to figure out the implications, he said.
“As partners in the bargaining process, our input should have been solicited,” he said.
Wallace acknowledged there was no discussion with the labor groups.
The vote was applauded by the Freedom Foundation, which provided a model from which Pullman based its resolution. In a news release, district officials in Tukwila said they wrote their resolution “independently at the suggestion of board members.”
Jami Lund, senior policy analyst for the Olympia-based think tank, said it’s especially important for the public to be able to view contract bargaining in light of the Legislature’s new education-funding plan. “I think it is going to be critical for all districts to do this as we go forward in education,” Lund said.”
But while Lund says open negotiations will increase the professionalism of the meetings, the state teachers union says it could serve as a distraction.
“When they’re at the bargaining table, it’s about the creative problem solving and working through very tough issues,” said Wood. “The anti-union groups want to be able to take what is being said at the bargaining table and interject themselves into the process overall and misconstrue and misrepresent what is actually happening.”