The president of the bargaining unit representing Hays USD 489 teachers said it was surprising to hear from the media that contract negotiations for the current academic year have gone into a fact-finding stage.

It’s also the first time negotiations have gotten to this stage in at least 25 years, Kim Schneweis, president of the Hays chapter of the Kansas National Education Association, said Wednesday.

“It’s surprising they didn’t at least let us know,” Schneweis said.

The negotiating teams for the Hays USD 489 school board and Hays NEA last met on Oct. 17 with a federal mediator. That meeting opened with the mediator clarifying each side’s positions, then each group met with the mediator separately in closed sessions.

“When we left the room, the federal mediator said the board had some things to think about and at this point, we were considered in open mediation,” she said.

Mike Walker, president of the USD 489 school board, said the board decided at its Oct. 21 meeting that moving to the fact-finding stage was appropriate.

“The department of labor was informed the next day, and Hays-NEA representatives were informed on Oct. 23 by the Department of Labor,” he said in an email Wednesday.

“We have heard no word one way or the other,” Schneweis said Tuesday.

Walker said he did not directly communicate the decision to the NEA because the Labor Department sends the notification.

“There is an official process. However, I regret not being in better communication with Hays-NEA. I have emailed the lead negotiators and apologized. We are in legal territory and I am not sure IF I would have been permitted to reach out to them once the board decided to move to fact-finding, but I did not inquire about doing so at the time. This was a mistake on my part,” Walker said in the email.

Schneweis said the Hays NEA did receive Walker’s apology on Wednesday, as well as a list of potential arbitrators.

There is not a specific timeline for the fact-finding process, but from this point the board and Hays NEA will select an arbitrator from the list the board received from the Kansas Association of School Boards.

A meeting will be scheduled with the arbitrator, and the two sides will present their information. The arbitrator will have two days to provide an opinion.

Both Walker and Schneweis likened the arbitration to a court room proceeding before a judge, but the arbitrator’s findings are non-binding.

If each side agrees with the arbitrator’s opinion, it is then put into the contract.

If they disagree, the school board creates a unilateral contract of its own design. Teachers new to the district will have to work under that contract. Teachers who have worked longer than this year can individually choose to accept the unilateral contract, work under last year’s contract — as they are now — or quit with no penalties.

At issue are health insurance and salary increases.

The board wants to establish the defined contribution for the 2020-21 insurance premiums, but the Hays NEA is firmly against dealing with that this year.

“Every offer they brought to us tied our salary increase for this year to a change in our insurance for next year,” Schneweis said.

“We adamantly told them we are not saying no to changes in insurance. We are saying not like this, not right now. It seems premature to decide that for next year,” she said.

Schneweis pointed out Election Day is Tuesday, and with four school board seats up for decision — two without incumbents running — those school board members should be allowed to negotiate next year’s contract terms.

“That should be their prerogative to take care of, and so that board should be negotiating next year’s health insurance, not this school board,” she said.