WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Keokuk School Employees Asking to "Pack the School Board Meeting" Over Contract Offers

Mar 20, 2018

The upcoming Keokuk School Board meeting might draw a larger crowd than normal. The additional observers are in response to the district's recent contract offers to its employees.

The organization Iowans for Public Education is encouraging people to “Pack the Keokuk School Board Meeting.” The meeting is scheduled for Thursday at 6:00 p.m. in the Torrence Elementary School gymnasium.

The Facebook post for the event encourages people to wear red in support of public education.

“Come stand with Keokuk teachers and other education workers as they speak out against school district proposals to gut their contracts,” per the Facebook post. “Strong contracts and positive worker relations are key to attracting the best and brightest educators for our schools, particularly in Iowa's smaller communities. Attempts to undermine the teaching profession result in lower quality schools for our kids, plain and simple.”

The district and the unions representing the district’s teachers, support staff (secretaries, para-educators, receptionists, clerks) and AFSCME-represented employees (custodians, maintenance workers, bus drivers, kitchen workers) have exchanged initial contract offers. You can read the offers below.

The unions asked for wage increases and for some changes to or deletions of the existing contract language. The teachers also want to form a labor management committee to review items not included in the master contract.

The district, on the other hand, wants to remove all of the previously negotiated language from the contract. All that would remain to be negotiated each year would be hourly wages/salaries.

Local governments have the ability to do that following last year’s overhaul of Iowa’s collective bargaining law for public employees. The state legislature decided the only mandatory topic for negotiation is pay.

All other issues are considered permissive and can be removed from contracts. They include hours, safety, seniority, staff reductions, holidays, grievances, and terminations.

The Keokuk School District said in its initial offers that it anticipates placing the language regarding employment terms and conditions in an employee handbook. It also said it anticipates establishing a committee to review and discuss employment terms and conditions in the employee handbook.

Jennifer Sherer is the Director of the University of Iowa Labor Center. She said an employee handbook does not carry the same authority as a negotiated contract.

“A handbook is not a legally-binding document,” said Sherer. “It is not a negotiated agreement between two parties. It is a policy imposed by management that can be changed at any time by management. Most of us and most people in local, elected positions were not around before 1974 to experience what it was like for people to only have handbooks, which were sometimes arbitrarily changed or in some cases, not adhered to.”

Sherer said it was in 1974 that Iowa passed a collective bargaining law for public employees. She said passage was aided in part by a teacher strike in Keokuk a few years earlier over changes to the employee handbook.

Sherer was in Keokuk Saturday for a nearly three hour information session at the Keokuk Labor Temple.

Sherer’s organization provided a review of Iowa’s history regarding collective bargaining, updated the more than 30 people in attendance on how the law changed in 2017, and explained what union/bargaining unit members can do in response to the contract offers.

More than a dozen Keokuk School District employees were in attendance, as well as two members of the Keokuk School board, and members of other bargaining units or unions in Lee County. Several of the Keokuk school employees spoke about their disappointment with the contract offers and urged people to ask the district to negotiate as they have done in the past.

Sherer says the law does not prohibit local governments from continuing negotiations as they have in the past, without removing permissive language from the contract. She said her organization is seeing a mix across the state of local governments negotiating as before and of local governments dropping all language.

“It’s a pretty broad spectrum,” said Sherer. “There are instances of districts that are coming out and saying very openly that we intend to maintain discussions on these optional items and maintain them in the contract because we think it is good for our relationship with employees, we think it’s good for our ability to recruit and retain qualified people in professional positions. And we have districts on the other end of the spectrum who come into negotiations saying we refuse to talk about anything other than wages.”

Sherer says her organization is also seeing a similar mix of responses from local communities regarding how public employee union contracts are being handled.

Superintendent Christine Barnes told Tri States Public Radio Tuesday afternoon that the district does not comment on ongoing negotiations, “Other than to say that we respect our employees and the value they bring to the Keokuk Community Schools and its students.”