Contract talks ‘going well' between Kent School District and teachers union

Contract negotiations between the teachers union and the Kent School District are "going well" so far after three meetings over the last few weeks.

Marilyn Tullis

Marilyn Tullis

Contract negotiations between the teachers union and the Kent School District are “going well” so far after three meetings over the last few weeks.

Both sides hope to avoid the teacher strike after talks broke down in 2009 and delayed the start of school by about three weeks before a settlement was reached on the current two-year contract that expires Aug. 31.

“We are bargaining and have met three times and will continue to meet over the summer,” said Lisa Brackin-Johnson, president of the Kent Education Association that represents the teachers, in a phone interview Monday. “The atmosphere is much different than in the past. It's going OK. It's going well.”

Chris Loftis, spokesman for the Kent School District, agreed that talks are going well.

“They are in the midst of the process and all reports are that talks are going smoothly,” Loftis said.

Teachers will vote on a new contract this summer.

“We have a general membership meeting Aug. 30 at Kentwood High School and it should be for (contract) ratification we hope,” Brackin-Johnson said.

State and federal budget cuts to schools caused the Kent School Board to cut about $15 million in April from the 2011-12 budget. The district expects to lay off about 30 employees before next school year.

The district employs 3,300, including 1,745 teachers. The district has an annual budget of $325 million.

“The reality for every district is we have a smaller workforce but not a smaller responsibility,” Loftis said. “The new norm is to do more with less. But you still need to be fair to everyone in the process. That's what negotiations are all about.”

Brackin-Johnson said “learning conditions” and “teacher rights and responsibilities” are the primary topics the union plans to focus on.

Unlike two years ago during talks, the union will not make class size a primary negotiating issue.

“Class size is always an important issue,” Brackin-Johnson said. “But at this time with the information we have from the district and the state budgets where they are, we are not making specific requests for class sizes like in the past.”

The Legislature slashed $5 billion from the state budget, including a 1.9 percent cut for teacher pay. Since teachers negotiate contracts with individual districts, it remains to be seen how the Kent district and union will handle that cut.

“It'll have some impact,” Brackin-Johnson said. “But what it looks like, we have only begun the initial conversation. We have not discussed it in depth.”

Negotiators have yet to talk about the length of the new contract. The expiring contract is a two-year deal but previous contracts were for as long as three years.

Brackin-Johnson indicated another strike in Kent appears unlikely.

“I can't give a definitive answer to that question but if the current bargaining continues with the same tone and manner as it has been, we should be able to reach an agreement,” she said.

Loftis said talks have progressed steadily even as both sides deal with the challenge of budget reductions.

“The natural tension between labor and management is coupled with a natural partnership,” Loftis said. “Both sides need one another to get the job done and the job is one both sides care about passionately, educating 28,000-plus students every day.”


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