MOUNT VERNON — With the exception of Danville, school employees in the Knox County area are represented by professional organizations which negotiate master contracts with their respective school boards. This spring, Centerburg, North Fork, Mount Vernon, the Knox County Career Center and East Knox are engaged in discussions which could cover topics ranging from salaries and benefits to making up calamity days.
Different school districts use different negotiating frameworks. Negotiations at KCCC don’t start from scratch, they begin with the previous contract. At Fredericktown and North Fork, everything is on the table, while at Centerburg, East Knox and Mount Vernon, a limited number of items will be negotiated through a process called interest-based bargaining.
East Knox will reopen negotiations to discuss salaries and benefits and two issues proposed by the board and two proposed by the employees. Centerburg and Mount Vernon are discussing salaries and benefits as well as certain items of interest or concern.
Because Danville schools do not have union arbitration, the school board goes by what is law and sets policies regarding employees and establishes salaries and benefits.
To find out more about interest-based bargaining, the News talked with Mount Vernon school superintendent Steve Short; Mount Vernon Education Association representatives Lynda Small and Patti Dice; and Liz Walls, president of the Mount Vernon Chapter of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees. They all said it is a collaborative process.
“It is not ‘us’ against ‘them,’” said Small. “It’s working together for the good of everybody.”
Prior to negotiations, the constituents in each group talk separately to develop a list of 10 to 12 issues they want to include in negotiations.
“When we bring issues to the [bargaining] table,” Walls said, “I don’t say, ‘We want another vacation day.’ The issues are always presented in the form of a question. For instance, ‘How can we make a 10-year employee more able to spend time with their family?’
“Then it becomes a brain-storming event. Mr. Short may say, ‘We don’t have the manpower to get the work done, if we give you another vacation day.’ ... It’s not like we ask and they say yes or no. We present and we talk it through. Sometimes we see the light on their behalf, sometimes they see the light on our behalf. It’s not like the old traditional way where they were on one side of the table and we were on the other side of the table.”
Dice said some of the issues raised are based on state or federal law and what has changed in the law since the last contract was ratified, such as changes in the Family Medical Leave Act. Sometimes negotiated items relate to other issues like technology and how advanced technology has become, what things add to people’s work, what things take away from people’s work. She said a major part of the negotiating process has to do with cleaning up and clarifying language in the previous contract.
“Most of it is cleaning up language,” Short said, “and in some cases it’s [previously] agreed upon language or it’s language that was understood by the parties at the time of the contract. There’s a history piece to everything that we do. There’s a reason why certain things were in the contract. And history changes. Some of the things that we do now may not necessarily fit the way they used to. As time moves on, you try to make a contract to fit the current [situation]. You try to come up with language — and it’s not easy — but you try to come with language that somebody coming along later who looks at it and reads it can understand. The problems always come in the interpretation of what’s written.”
To deal with concerns or issues that come up between contracts, the associations and the board negotiate what is called a memorandum of understanding.
“Something could be in place for years and years,” explained Walls, “and sometimes when you get new administration, they might not understand the sense [of the contract language] that we have understood it to mean for a long time. So, we’ll do a memorandum of understanding to help us, and them, understand in black and white what the [original] meaning was.”
Sometimes new positions are created through a memorandum of understanding. For example, when the Mount Vernon school board voted to save money by outsourcing fewer services, it needed to do a memorandum of understanding to bring the position of academic program monitor and the position of academic program assistant into the master contract.
The financial piece of the contract is a separate piece, Short said. The parties will sit down and talk about the district’s budget, the treasurer’s reports and the five-year financial forecast. Dice said the associations’ representatives are also welcome to sit in on the financial advisory committee meetings.
“We know what money is there,” Walls said. “We know what to expect.”
“The more information we share,” said Short,” the better we can come up with something that will serve not only ourselves, but also serve our students and our community. ... In the end, the bottom line for me is, what’s good for the district is going to be good for kids and good for education.”
When a tentative contract agreement is reached, the parties take it back to their constituents for approval and then the school board takes a ratification vote. When that is done, the treasurer has to sign a document that states there is enough money to cover the length of the contract.
Due to the confidential nature of negotiations, no details will be available until contracts are ratified by both employers and employees.