Story last updated at 2:36 p.m. Friday, August 9, 2002

District claim upheld
by Carey James
Staff Writer

The Alaska Labor Relations Agency has found merit in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's claim of unfair labor practices by the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, but resolution to the situation is likely still months away.

The district said a labor practices violation occurred when two members of the association allegedly accessed the e-mail accounts of a school board member or members reading e-mail messages that contained information about the district's bargaining position.

The district filed the unfair labor practices claim in May, despite the fact that it continued to negotiate with both KPEA and the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association.

Since then, Jean Ward, an investigator with the agency, has been sifting through the facts to see if a case of unfair labor practice could be substantiated.

On Wednesday, Ward issued her findings.

"The allegations, if true, concern conduct that could be contrary to the obligation to bargain in good faith," Ward wrote in her preliminary finding of probable cause.

Ward stressed, however, that finding a case to have merit does not mean the agency has determined fault on the part of the union. Instead, her ruling simply means that if the accusations are true, fault could be found by the Alaska Labor Relations Board.

"Because a reasonable person could find that the alleged conduct is contrary to the duty to bargain in good faith, it is appropriate to refer this matter to hearing," Ward said.

Kathy Carrow, vice president of KPEA and a member of the union negotiating team, said Wednesday shortly after finding out about the ruling that she was disappointed.

"We continue to see this e-mail issue as an opportunity for the district and the board to stall the bargaining process," Carrow said. "We encourage the district to come back to the table."

The union has yet to decide what its next step will be, but if the case goes to a hearing, Carrow said, the union welcomes the opportunity to present the facts.

"If there was any breach to the e-mail confidentiality, it did not compromise the bargaining process," she said. "It's been our stance all along, and it continues to be."

Todd Syverson, assistant superintendent of administrative services, said the district is pleased the unfair labor practices claim process is moving forward, and said the district is eager to get back to the bargaining table. The district and the unions have agreed to restart talks on Sept. 12 and 13, although the unions have requested an earlier date, Carrow said.

"It has been our stance all along to continue negotiating," Syverson said. "Even though an (unfair labor practices claim) was filed, we still wanted to work with our employee groups."

Syverson said he does not expect the case to cause a delay in the negotiations.

Ward said she was unable to find a precedent for a case of e-mail theft allegedly affecting contract bargaining, even on a national scale.

"This could be the first time," Ward said. "We may be setting precedent."

Now that merit has been found in the case, the claim will be forwarded to an agency hearing examiner. The union has 15 days to object to the accusation, present a defense or request a hearing by filing a notice of defense.

Assuming the union requests a hearing, it will present its case to a three-member panel of the board, which will decide whether there has been a violation, and if so, what remedy should be applied.

In the complaint, the district asked for restitution for costs of investigation, attorney's fees and the salaries of the KPEA members placed on administrative leave as a result of the alleged e-mail theft. The board, however, makes the ultimate decision regarding the remedy.

As for when a hearing could occur, Ward said it is difficult to tell at this point, but isn't likely anytime in the next few months.

Ward said she continues to work on the unfair labor practice claims against the district filed by the unions last month. The district asked for an extension for filing a rebuttal on the case until Aug. 13 due to the fact that its lawyers were out of town. Once the rebuttal is filed, Ward said, she will aspire to make a decision on the merit of the union's case quickly so both cases could proceed simultaneously, due to the similar facts in each case.

"If there is probable cause, then it would make sense to schedule both hearings in the same block of time," she said.

In a related case, Kenai Police Sgt. Scott McBride said Wednesday he had forwarded a criminal case to the Kenai district attorney's office regarding the e-mail security breach at the district. No names have been released.