Invalidation of 3-year unilateral contract adds new complexity to situation with Shawnee Mission teachers

Superintendent Mike Fulton (at table) delivered brief remarks at the opening of the fact finding hearing on contract negotiations with the teachers union in January.

Superintendent Mike Fulton (at table) delivered brief remarks at the opening of the fact finding hearing on contract negotiations with the teachers union in January.

The Kansas Department of Labor’s ruling Friday that the Shawnee Mission Board of Education had engaged in prohibited practice when it adopted a three-year unilateral contract last month added a new layer of complexity to an already volatile situation.

Here’s where things stand on a few fronts as of Monday morning:

How teachers responded to their options

Individual teachers had until 4:30 p.m. Friday to inform the district how they would respond to the the board’s contract. They had three options: Accepting the three-year contract, “stacking” their contract and continuing to work under the terms of last year’s deal, or resigning.

Teachers’ overwhelmingly signed the unilateral contract, with 1,939 of the 2,003 employees taking the first option. Sixty-two employees took option two, “stacking” their contract; and just two resigned.

But when the Department of Labor ruling came out, it rendered the last two years of the district’s unilateral contract invalid, meaning that the teachers who signed the deal will only be bound by the first year.

As to whether the Department of Labor’s decision has any impact on the decisions the teachers had already made, the district indicated it doesn’t believe that it will.

“Although the district is still evaluating the Department of Labor’s decision, it does not appear to impact the current school year or the 15 day statutory time period which permitted teachers to resign following the approval of a unilateral agreement,” said Shawnee Mission Chief Communications Officer David Smith.

How the district will respond to the KDOL ruling

In its statement issued directly after the KDOL ruling, the district said, “While the district disagrees with the decision, we remain committed to working with NEA-SM to resolve the matter of future compensation, benefits, and working conditions. As such, the district has reached out to KNEA to discuss the decision and will work to identify next steps.”

Asked over the weekend whether the district would consider appealing the ruling, Smith said that, “The district received the Department of Labor ruling late Friday afternoon, and has not had the opportunity to fully review the ruling and explore its options.”

As for an appeals process, Kansas Department of Labor Communications and Legislative Director Julie Menghini said that, since the parties had waived their right to an in-person hearing on the complaint, the decision was now “subject to review and enforcement in accordance with the Kansas judicial review act,” under Kansas statute. If the district were to appeal, it appears that the venue for review would be Johnson County District Court, since it is the “judicial district where the principal offices of the pertinent board of education are located.”

The district would have 30 days to file an appeal with the court clerk if it chooses to do so.

Would a three-year unilateral contract ever be permissible?

In the decision, the KDOL attorney pointed to statements made by members of the board of education indicating that part of the motivation for the issuance of a three-year unilateral contract was “a deliberate attempt to remove the perceived impediment of subsequent annual contract negotiations,” thus depriving the teachers union of its right to negotiate.

Attorney Justin Whitten, the attorney designated to review the matter on behalf of the KDOL, noted that “Missing [from the board members’ statements] is any explanation as to why successful execution of the ‘strategic plan’ cannot include subsequent annual contract negotiations.”

Whitten’s specific citation of the board members’ motivation for adoption of the unilateral contract as part of the determination that it was impermissible opens up the question of whether, under different circumstances, a three-year unilateral contract would ever be permissible — and that’s not a question the department says it can answer.

“In response to your question, ‘Would a three-year unilateral contract ever be permissible under the Kansas Professional Negotiations Act?’ that seeks an advisory opinion, which KDOL cannot provide,” Menghini said.

Kansas Families for Education calls KDOL decision a ‘positive step’

Public education advocacy group Kansas Families for Education issued a statement following the KDOL ruling, saying that it was a “positive step that opens the door to moving forward with negotiations.”

“The Department of Labor’s ruling confirms what people across the state have
been saying: Shawnee Mission teachers were not treated fairly in this process,” said KFE Board President Chris Cindric, a former Shawnee Mission educator. “This ruling creates an opportunity to unify and move forward in a way that recognizes and rewards the dedication and sacrifice of our teachers while putting the success of Shawnee Mission students front and center.”