At 12:02 a.m. Monday morning, Battle Ground Public Schools announced it was taking advantage of an infrequently used state statute in an effort to bring clarity to ongoing negotiations.
The district Monday asked the Public Employment Relations Commission to conduct a process called “fact finding.” The organization will “examine information where there is disagreement and provide a nonbinding opinion that will advance the bargaining process,” according to the district statement.
“At this point, the district believes the parties are deadlocked on the fundamental issue of providing resources for employee compensation and the legislation implementing the (school funding) decision,” the district said in the announcement.
The process, laid out in state law, is rarely used, PERC Executive Director Mike Sellars said. The Grandview School District, southeast of Yakima, requested fact finding in 2016 over a security system implementation. In 1994, the Federal Way School District requested fact finding for insurance and compensation-related issues.
The results of the fact finding, however, are not binding.
“Essentially, it is more like an arbitration where the arbitrator decides the resolution, but in this instance it is merely a recommendation,” Sellars said by email.
The Battle Ground Education Association, the teachers union, decried the request for fact finding as “delay tactics.”
“Battle Ground School District leaders have relinquished their responsibility to their students, parents, the community and their employees,” President Linda Peterson said in a news release. “BGSD leaders have punted their obligations to the Public Employees Relations Commission. The administration’s decision to request fact finding is so infuriating. After more than three months of bargaining, they continue to stonewall our efforts to negotiate a fair settlement.”
The day’s action lasted well into the evening at the Battle Ground school board meeting. After several instances of loud applause from the crowded room, board president Ken Root moved the meeting into a quiet room open only to the crowd of reporters that remained at about 8:30 p.m.
There, the board unanimously adopted a resolution that, like Vancouver Public Schools and Evergreen Public Schools, notifies teachers the district will not pay their salaries for the month if the strike continues past Monday in compliance with state law. Unlike other districts, however, Battle Ground will continue to pay health insurance premiums up front, drawing them from teacher salaries once they return to work.
“I think that’s very positive, if that’s the one positive thing, we’re not going to have our teachers pay COBRA (continuing health benefits) out of their pockets,” Root said. “We’re going to front that money until they return.”
This is no typical year for bargaining. Districts across the state continue to negotiate over how to spend new state money and to what degree the allocations should be spent on teacher salaries. Battle Ground is the last district in Southwest Washington whose teachers are on strike.
The district says bargaining teams for the two sides are $4.7 million, or 8 percent, apart in their offers. The district’s latest offer would add $6.6 million, an increase of 11.6 percent, for teacher compensation this year compared to last year, according to the district. The union’s proposal would add $11.3 million, or an increase of 19.6 percent, for teacher compensation this year.
The district’s latest proposal would start teachers’ salaries at $50,019 this year, topping out at $94,629. By the 2020-2021 school year, that would increase to a range of $52,851 to $99,986.
Superintendent Mark Ross told The Columbian last week that at this rate, the district can expect to see significant deficits within the next three or four years. In addition to cuts to local levy funding under the McCleary legislation — which hit Battle Ground harder than some surrounding districts due to its smaller property tax base — the district anticipates costs of things like fuel and materials will increase.
“I think there’s an anticipation that we’re going to have to look at some cuts,” Ross said.
Busy board meeting
Teachers and families packed Battle Ground Public Schools’ Monday board meeting to capacity, with standing room only and a larger crowd in the courtyard of the Lewisville Campus.
For several hours prior, teachers demonstrated on Battle Ground’s Main Street, a familiar sight to anyone who has driven around Clark County in recent weeks.
Speakers talked overwhelmingly of supporting district teachers, demanding fair pay comparable to the raises given in other parts of Southwest Washington this summer.
Heather Williams, a science teacher at River HomeLink, was driven to tears as she spoke of returning to Battle Ground, her home community, after pursuing a career in biology in San Diego.
“I thought I wanted to come back here and teach, and I just don’t know if I do,” she said. “I wanted to give back to the community I was raised in.”
Karl Lemire, a resident of the district whose children graduated from Battle Ground schools, handed Ross $9 and asked if he would give it to teacher salaries.
Ross stumbled and told him he’d have to cut the amount in half, a reference to next year’s drop in local levy funds.
“You’re smoke and mirrors,” Lemire told him.
Lemire accused the district of failing to use dedicated funds for teacher salaries, and said their actions forced this continued strike.
“Give Battle Ground children the best of the best for our teachers,” he said.
The audience remained quiet for most of the meeting after Root warned it would be closed and moved if applause or shouting became too disruptive. But following the final speaker at about 8:30 p.m., the room erupted into applause.
Root pounded his gavel.
“This meeting is closed,” he said. “We’ll continue in the next room.”
It was in that room the board approved the resolution on salaries and benefits before closing for the night.
“In order to keep order for the meeting we had to close the meeting to prevent any kind of outburst,” Root told reporters.
Ross declined to comment further on the day’s events.
How this latest chapter in the ongoing saga of contract negotiations could affect the first day of school in north Clark County is unclear. The district has canceled classes for Tuesday, but offered no hints on how long the process could take. The bargaining team travels to Olympia Tuesday for mediated bargaining with PERC.
Ross at Monday’s board meeting noted the soonest the fact finder could meet, however, is likely Wednesday, suggesting continued absences for the district’s roughly 13,000 students.
State gives the fact finder five days after their appointment to investigate the mediation in question. If the dispute isn’t settled within 10 days after their appointment, they’ll offer their opinion and recommend terms of settlement within 30 days. Sellars said the commission would try to expedite the process.