The Hays USD 489 school board was split on tabling a resolution to opt out of the Public Employer-Employee Relations Act, but in discussion of the issue, a majority of the board indicated they would vote against it.
The act establishes the right of public employees in Kansas to organize and negotiate with employers on terms and conditions of employment and grievances. While mandatory for the state, local governments can choose whether or not to participate.
If the board were to opt out of PEERA, it would only affect its negotiations with Hays Service Employees International Union, which represents the districts custodial and maintenance workers. If opting out were done before June, it would take affect after the completion of the next full budget year, July 1, 2019, board attorney Bill Jeter said.
Superintendent John Thissen said 18 of the board’s 26 custodial staff are dues-paying members of SEIU.
After almost a half hour of discussion, board member Greg Schwartz made a motion to table the resolution until the April 30 board meeting.
Board President Lance Bickle, Vice President Mandy Fox and board members Luke Oborny and Schwartz voted in favor of tabling the resolution, while board members Sophia Young, Mike Walker and Paul Adams voted against the motion.
The issue was placed on January’s agenda after an incident in August that upset several of the board members. Just hours before the board was set to vote on changing the district’s health insurance provider, the Hays National Education Association and Hays Service Employees International Union delivered a letter threatening legal action if the switch was made.
The vote on the health care provider was made before two of the current members were on the board. Walker and Young were voted onto the board in November’s elections. Schwartz was voted in at the same meeting by the board to fill the seat vacated by Sarah Rankin. The vote on the insurance provider was postponed until a later meeting and passed.
Oborny, Adams, Walker and Young each spoke against opting out of PEERA during the discussion.
After Bickle introduced the resolution at Monday’s meeting, discussion was slow to start. Oborny was first to speak, saying it doesn’t feel like the right thing to do right now.
“I am against voting opting out. The key word is their voice. Their voice is going to be lost,” he said.
“In two to five years, I may vote exactly the opposite, so I don’t ever want to be tied down to that. But today, the culture and environment we have, I feel there is distrust of the board,” he said.
He attributed that in part to changes made in December, where 14 custodial staff were transferred to different buildings.
Adams said although he has reservations about the SEIU leadership and whether it gave fair representation to the employees, he also was against opting out of PEERA.
“It has worked well in the past, and I want to separate myself out from what happened in August. That’s an emotional reaction,” he said.
Walker said he opposed opting out because having representation encourages the best workers to apply for the job, increases the odds due process will be followed and sends a message that the workers are viewed as a valuable part of a team, not a commodity.
Young said if the number of custodians in the union were lower, it would be easy to make the decision. But, she said, the custodial staff has seen too many changes this year in the health-care provider and the moving of staff.
“Although the changes were wise, it might not be wise to impose too many changes in the same school year to a group of such hardworking and dedicated staff,” she said, reading from a prepared statement.
Schwartz and Bickle also spoke at length, but were not so cut-and-dry on where they stand.
“Any time any type of change is looked at, it’s never a good time. Change is never popular, no matter what we do,” Bickle said.
Bickel said he was not advocating for a vote either way on the resolution, and he disagreed with Oborny that custodians would lose a voice if the board decided to opt out.
“I think we’ve had a history in this district, for the most part, benefits that were for teachers and staff went across the board,” he said. “I don’t think it’s one of those things I would necessarily agree that all of a sudden if something changes here that they’re going to lose a bunch of things or lose a voice.”
He said he recognizes the importance of the custodial staff. He noted they had several representatives on the insurance discussion and believed they should be represented on future such discussions.
Schwartz said he generally supports unions — his father, he said, was responsible for unionizing the Hays Fire Department and sued the city to get his job back after he was fired — but he didn’t know if he supported opting out of PEERA.
“We are one of two districts in the state of Kansas that recognize this, the other being Wichita, which we are nowhere near being in the same boat they are. That’s where the numbers come in,” he said.
He said unions sometimes negotiate benefits that are detrimental, but that is more the fault of the board or management.
“My problem with unions is the boards and management that deal with them and don’t hold firm to their negotiations and aren’t looking out for the best interest of their entities.
“I don’t blame the unions. They’re looking out for their interests. Those people on this side have to hold the reins on the other end of it,” he said.
Schwartz noted he was part of a previous school board that did a wage study that helped boost the salaries of custodians and that a guarantee of due process could be included in the district’s policy.
“I’m not sure exactly where I stand on this. I’m kind of on the fence, and I don’t like to be that way on many issues. But my personal philosophy, I think unions are a good thing, but on the other side of it, I don’t know how beneficial it is to the district to remain in this,” he said.
In December, both the city of Hays and Ellis County commissions voted to opt out of PEERA. For the city, that ends negotiations for unions representing service employees, fire and police. The county’s vote effects four collective bargaining groups representing service employees in public works, the sheriff’s office, EMS and the courthouse.
The county, city and school board had all opted in to PEERA since the early 1970s.