Story last updated at 4:11 p.m. Thursday, August 15, 2002

Stakes too high to neglect goal
The days are getting shorter, fireweed blossoms are climbing the stalk and summer will be gone before we know it. Children who are trying to squeeze the last bit of fun out of the season will soon be back in the halls and classrooms of area achools.

But what kind of atmosphere will be awaiting them?

A lot has happened since school doors closed in May. Already unpleasant contract negotiations between the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and unions representing district teachers and support staff turned really ugly over the summer, despite the fact that the two sides never met. Progress? Forget about it.

An alleged breach in e-mail security led to an unfair labor practice charge filed by the district against the union in May. Saying information contained in intercepted e-mails written by administration and school board members unfairly advantaged the unions, Superintendent Donna Peterson likened the negotiatings to a poker game.

"If someone knows you have three jacks, you are going to be at a disadvantage," she said.

Professing good will and a desire to work together with the unions, district administration then upped the ante of its poker game by following its unfair labor practice charge with criminal charges. To date, one criminal investigation has been dropped and a second is still under way. In the meantime, three suspects have been the subject of "internal discipline," also, apparently, in the spirit of good will and cooperation.

Not to be outdone, the union team trumped in with unfair labor practice charges of its own. Most recently, it produced a proverbial ace in the hole by protesting the disciplining of Kenai Peninsula Education Association President Hans Bilben by filing a lawsuit against the district that alleges that e-mailed communications about negotiations violate the state's Open Meetings Act.

Where it will all end is anyone's guess. But clearly, leadership is sorely needed.

In its response to the lawsuit, district administration, once again, missed an opportunity to demonstrate that leadership. Its response, as articulated by Assistant Superintendent Todd Syverson, was to disingenuously play the victim while painting the "other side" as the bad guy: "It's disturbing that (the unions) would waste district and taxpayer money with a lawsuit," he said. "It's disturbing and sad."

Considering that the district, with taxpayer money, has retained the $150-an-hour services of one of the state's top labor law firms to advise in the playing of its own hand, this response seems to us a shallow attempt to win public relations points while ignoring the increasingly desperate need for substantive progress in negotiations.

So much fuss over a few e-mails, cards played close to the chest so no one but the district administration can use them. There is no place for this kind of secrecy from public employees engaged in a public process. The public has a right to know the details of what is bogging down negotiations. Until the administration puts these cards on the table, its players have no claim to any kind of moral high ground.

This is far, far more than a poker game. All players need to realize this. With the future of our schools and of our children on the line, the stakes couldn't be higher.

To lose sight of that in a jumble of petty and ego-driven squabbles is what really would be disturbing.

And sad.