Aberdeen School District adds mediator to handle AEA negotiations

The Aberdeen School District has brought in a mediator to facilitate upcoming bargaining sessions with the Aberdeen Education Association, the union representing teachers. The decision comes following Tuesday’s scrubbed bargaining meeting that left both sides waiting in different rooms of the same building because of miscommunication.

“Negotiations broke down yesterday due to an unfortunate misunderstanding,” Aberdeen Superintendent Alicia Henderson said in a press release. “We are hopeful that a mediator can help us get back to the table before school starts. The district sincerely wants to continue talking with the goal of reaching a settlement before school starts.”

With a new state funding model going into effect in 2019 due to the McCleary court decision providing more state money for schools, the Aberdeen School District is estimated to receive almost $5 million in additional funding, and the AEA wants a significant increase in teacher pay. The district’s current contract with the AEA expires at the end of the month.

Henderson said the district felt the need to involve a mediator both because the sides weren’t making progress on the details of the contract, and in response to the situation Tuesday and the meeting snafu.

“Yesterday we wanted to return to the table, and when (the AEA) didn’t want to, we assumed we just need to get some help,” she said.

The Public Employment Relations Commission in Olympia has already assigned the district a mediator, who will attend future bargaining meetings. The mediator would likely meet individually with the AEA and the district’s teams, going back and forth to handle the contract negotiations, Henderson said.

Typically, mediators are brought in when both sides throw up their hands because no progress is being made.

AEA President Michelle Reed, however, said the two parties are “nowhere near (an) impasse” that would require a mediator, and she believes the mediator will determine there’s no need for a third-party negotiator.

“We’ve had two substantive bargaining sessions, and there are literally scores of open issues left to bargain,” said Reed. “We anticipate that the (Public Employment Relations Commission) will find that it is appropriate for the district to return to the table and bargain. It is becoming painfully obvious that the district is unwilling to bargain in good faith, and is grasping at straws to avoid bargaining in good faith.”

Tuesday’s bargaining session was scheduled to start at 10:30 a.m. at the district offices, and both the union and district negotiation teams showed up and held individual group meetings in separate rooms, as they have in the past.

Instead of meeting in their usual room upstairs, the district’s team met in the basement of the district offices because of poor air quality upstairs due to the wildfire smoke, Henderson said, and so they could sit in a more spacious room. Neither negotiation team contacted the other for 30 minutes.

Erik Peterson, the AEA’s vice president and lead bargainer, later told The Daily World he believes that the district intentionally didn’t contact the AEA’s team in response to a teacher-support rally on Monday afternoon.

“For 35 minutes they didn’t show up. No contact, no call,” said Peterson. “They have clocks, they have phones, they have secretaries.”

AEA members left the building at 11 a.m. According to the district’s press release, when district negotiators became aware that the union negotiators were leaving, Assistant Superintendent Jim Sawin went outside the office to speak with an AEA negotiator, offered a “profuse apology,” and said that the district wanted to meet and had a contract proposal.

Over the next several hours, the two parties exchanged a series of emails, but the district was not able to convince the AEA to return to the bargaining table.

Going forward, it’s unclear if the AEA will meet with the district prior to the school year. When asked if the AEA would meet with the district before the next scheduled meeting on Sept. 5, Reed simply said: “We will meet with them on Sept. 5, as scheduled.”