School to begin Tuesday without contracts

Harry Lipsiea Journal Reporter
Members of the Warwick School Board and attorney Meredith Vukelic look on during the impasse hearing Wednesday.

The first day of school is fast approaching. That is specifically true for Warwick Public School as Tuesday, Aug. 18 is the first day of classes at the school district in Benson County.

In addition to preparing for the upcoming school year, there have been additional challenges facing Warwick Public School as the education association and its school board have been struggling to reach middle ground regarding wages.

After months of attempts at negotiations, the two parties have been unable to reach an agreement on teacher's contracts for 2015-2016.

"It's disappointing that we haven't been able to reach an agreement," Kevin Cartwright, English instructor at Warwick Public School and member of the Warwick Education Association.

On Wednesday afternoon, an impasse hearing was held at the school's gymnasium. It was conducted by the North Dakota Fact Finding Commission. The three-member commission is brought in during similar situations to gather information, talk to both parties and ultimately make a ruling.

"When two parties are unable to reach a negotiation, the Fact Finding Commission is asked to help find common ground," Dean Rummel, chairman of the North Dakota Fact Finding Commission, stated Wednesday afternoon.

Ultimately, the commission determined that rulings needed to be made on six issues that the education association were unable to reach terms. The six areas that the Warwick Education Association (WEA) are inquiring about are: an annual increase for returning teachers of $1,000 increased from $500, a one-time pay increase of $1,000 for returning teachers, additional percentage contributed to the staff's retirement funds, the teacher evaluation process, returning teacher base pay and newly-hired teacher base pay.

"For the past several years, the education association has been willing to go along with the annual pay raise as we knew the district's financial concerns," Rita Kaeding, Warwick math instructor and president of WEA, stated. "Based on projects by the Department of Public Instruction, the school will be receiving additional funds the next two years."

One of the reasons, the WEA is asking for the wage increase is that the board has hired new teachers at a higher salary than teachers currently on staff that have similar education.

"It seems as if the board is more willing to pay fines and penalties than work with its current staff to negotiate fair contracts," Kaeding added.

Both Kaeding and Cartwright pointed out that negotiations have been frustrating as board members have missed several meetings scheduled to try and come to an agreement.

The school board, through the communications of its attorney, noted that an issue with its past business manager has left Warwick Public School without a completed financial report for 2014-2015 or a 2015-2016 school year budget.

"Due to those past issues, there isn't an approved budget which has made negotiations difficult," Meredith Vukelic, an attorney with Pearce and Durick of Bismarck, stated representing the board.

While there has been an added challenge do the issue, Vukelic commented that the board feels that they have made continued efforts to negotiate contracts for the 2015-2016 school year.

"The school board feels that its offerings are very competitive with districts of the area," she stated. "The two parties have been able to reach terms on a number of different areas showing that the school board has been willing to negotiate."

After both parties had the opportunity to make opening statements and justifications, the commission asked several questions to get a clearer picture of the situation.

Rummel then announced that the commission would come to a ruling regarding the impasse in the next 7-to-10 days.

"You can adapt our rulings, you can tweak them or you can ignore them, but no matter what the case an agreement needs to be made between the two parties," he stated. He suggested the board and education association meet several times to complete the issue in a timely manner.

"An agreement won't be reached by the first day of school which is always tough," Rummel stated. "But I think it's important for the district to have an agreement made as soon as possible."