Story last updated at 3:22 p.m. Thursday, September 12, 2002

Legal battle heats up

Unions say district reneging on deal

by Carey James
Staff Writer

Only a week after education union negotiators said they were on the edge of an agreement with the school district that would wipe clean the ever-mounting stack of legal actions, such hopes appear dashed -- and even reversed.

On Aug. 29, The Kenai Peninsula Education Association announced it had sent a proposal to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District in response to a discussion with district administrators, said Hans Bilben, association president.

The proposal called for the reinstatement into the classroom of the teacher still under investigation by the Kenai District Attorney's office for illegally accessing district e-mail. In addition, Bilben, who lost his e-mail privileges in a disciplinary action, would be allowed access to district e-mail again and have a letter of reprimand removed from his file. The district was also asked to withdraw its unfair labor practice claim.

In return, the unions offered to withdraw their unfair labor practice claim and a civil lawsuit recently filed against the district concerning an alleged violation of the state's Open Meetings Act and the restriction of Bilben's e-mail privileges, which he contends interferes with his ability to function as president of the union.

Bilben said the unions asked for a response from the district by Sept. 2 and fully expected the district to agree with the proposal, as it was in line with earlier discussions with several members of the district administration.

Instead, the district responded that the teacher would be placed back in the classroom, but that the rest of the legal actions would be allowed to run their course, Bilben said.

District superintendent Donna Peterson had no comment on these proceedings and did not acknowledge that any such agreement was ever proposed, saying only that legal discussions were ongoing.

"I don't know what happened," Bilben said. "It was our understanding that the main reason for the settlement was to get rid of all the legal things and get back to the table. It was a real straightforward proposal and was based on a proposal one of the district's senior management team members was bringing around."

Bilben contends that there have been mistakes on both sides of the table, but that it is time to get over those and move on.

"All the legal business is clouding over the main issue, which is negotiations," Bilben said.

On Sept. 6, the district filed a motion to dismiss the unions' claim of unfair labor practice against the district, saying that in several cases, the union's claims were unsubstantiated and failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The district's motion also asks the Alaska Labor Relations Agency to award the district its costs and fees associated with defending against "this frivolous unfair labor practice complaint."

The same day, the district also filed a motion to dismiss the civil lawsuit brought against it by Bilben, the union and several other union members asking for the reinstatement of Bilben's district e-mail rights.

The dismissal motion claims that Bilben "failed to exhaust his administrative and contractual remedies" to the situation and that Bilben's claim "is in essence a claim of an unfair labor practice that must be brought before the Alaska Labor Relations Agency, not a trial court."

On Tuesday, the unions filed a motion for a preliminary injunction against the school district asking the court to make the district reinstate Bilben's e-mail service quickly so the union president could properly communicate with the union members. Bilben contends that when the district restricted him from using district e-mail as a result of his admitted reading of e-mails that wereallegedly obtained illegally, Bilben was no longer able to access more than 1,000 e-mail messages as well as lists of union member addresses and an online "bulletin board" where members post messages and discuss topics.

"This is beyond ridiculous," said KPEA vice president Cathy Carrow in a prepared statement released Tuesday. "Here we are just two days away from going back to the bargaining table, and our association's president is barred from using these vital, two-way communications with our members. I am disappointed that it's had to come to this point. It certainly looks like the district is trying to cripple our association as we move to this critical stage in our bargaining."

Bilben said he hopes to hear a response from the courts by the end of next week regarding the injunction motion. If the courts agree with the motion, it will bar the district from restricting Bilben's access until the merit of the lawsuit can be decided.

Meanwhile, both the district and the unions return to the bargaining table today.

Peterson said the district would be coming back to the table with an offer. She said she hopes both sides are willing to negotiate.

"The negotiation process should be give and take," she said. "We need to see something from the other side, too. But I'm incredibly optimistic."

Carey James can be reached at cjames@homernews.com

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