Denair Unified board extends olive branch

naustin@modbee.comOctober 26, 2013 

— A rare flicker of hope came at the very end of the contentious Denair Unified Board meeting last week, when the board and the union seemed on the cusp of agreeing to abide by third-party recommendations for a contract.

The district has run out of reserves and is moving toward a state takeover if it cannot get its finances in line, which requires sealing a deal with its teachers. Negotiations reached impasse several months ago, and on Friday, the state mediator officially gave up and certified the district needs to move on to the fact-finding step.

Thursday night, school board President Robert Hodges said he would abide by the report of a state fact-finding board and elicited similar pledges from other trustees. He then asked Denair Unified Teachers Association lead negotiator Kelly Beard to come to the podium and agree to do the same. Beard told trustees she could not commit without consulting with her board, but agreed to consider it.

“Everybody in the room kind of responded (that) maybe this is a way to come together and heal,” said Interim Superintendent Walt Hanline after the meeting. Hanline said he would not have recommended it, but the move offered a solution.

“I think it took a lot of guts for Robert to do that. He’s trusting the process,” Hanline said.

On Friday, however, DUTA President Barry Cole said the union cannot agree to a plan sight unseen. “The best decision is one made by mutual agreement by the people closest to the problem who have to live with the results – not someone who blows in for a day and tries to understand the situation,” he said.

In the fact-finding step of the negotiations resolution process, the union and the district each picks a representative, and an impartial chairman is appointed by the state. The three-person panel crunches the numbers and argues out what it sees as a fair solution. If the two sides reject it, however, the district can impose wage cuts without a contract and the union has the legal right to strike.

Cole said despite the board’s pledge, he believes the district is determined to cut 11percent from teacher pay. He sees the amount as unnecessary to balance the books and far more than other groups have given up. “We have no confidence the board will really accept the fact finders’ decision. They certainly are not bound to do so, and given recent history, we are certainly skeptical,” he said.

“The board would stand together behind Robert,” said board member Louisa Allen on Friday. Allen is not running for re-election, bringing up another wrinkle. The election will bring at least two new faces in December to the five-member board, filling Allen’s seat and the now-empty chair of Julian Wren, who resigned. Three are up for a vote.

Hanline said the report would be available by the end of December, which means new trustees could be the ones ultimately deciding its fate.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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