Dillingham School Board rejects union grievance over free flights

Feb 4, 2016

The Dillingham Education Association says the district violated its agreement when it purchased plane tickets for new hires; the school board dismissed the grievance Monday on the grounds that it is not timely.

Nathan Coutsoubous was one of a handful of DEA members who testified Monday about the district buying plane tickets for some, but not all, new teachers in 2014.

The Dillingham teacher’s union is butting heads with the school district over plane tickets the district purchased for certain new hires in 2014.

At a meeting Monday night, the Dillingham School Board rejected the formal complaint, saying the Dillingham Education Association took too long to address the issue.

Audio transcript:

The issue goes back to 2014, when former Dillingham superintendent Bill McLeod bought plane tickets for certain prospective hires and their family members.

That’s not standard practice for the district, and most teachers were not offered a travel allowance. At a school board meeting Monday night, high school teacher Mariah Smith was among those who testified to that disparity.

"I was hired in May of 2014 over the phone by [Principal] Schwan, and I asked before I got hired if there would be an option to get a moving allowance of some sort, because other districts in Alaska did provide that," said Smith. "and I was told that the district would not be able to do that."

Smith is a member of the Dillingham Education Association, the local union branch that negotiates salaries and benefits on behalf of teachers. DEA President Eric Leitz says the district violated that negotiated agreement when it bought the plane tickets.

"Our position was that that constitutes a wage," says Leitz, "and as a wage it should be negotiated through us, and he can’t just offer that outside of a negotiation with the union."

The DEA first brought up the issue in January 2015, around the same time that McLeod announced his resignation and Danny Frazier became the new superintendent.

The DEA was not asking for monetary compensation – what union members want is a written promise from the district that it won’t offer incentives selectively again.

But the district has been unwilling to give up the ability to ‘sweeten the deal’ when it finds itself in difficult last-minute hiring situations.

In May, a meeting between the DEA and Superintendent Frazier failed to find a resolution. Then at some point this fall, there was a lapse in communication between the district and the union –  the two parties don’t agree on exactly who failed to email back and when.

But all the delays led to the school board’s decision this week to reject the grievance.

After several DEA members testified Monday night, the school board unanimously rejected the complaint, saying the union took too long to file the formal grievance.

School Board President Chris Napoli spoke during the meeting Monday: "I’ll entertain a motion that we write a letter to the President of the DEA saying that the [grievance] letter was untimely, and that if the issue is important, we can bring it up during the negotiated agreement."

The motion passed unanimously, with the school board opting to not directly address the grievance. The board's only other action was to clarify that if a superintendent wants to offer any hiring incentives in the future, the school board should be notified ahead of time. 

Leitz says that leaves the ball in the union’s court.

"We have to decide whether or not to pursue Level 4, where we would bring in an independent arbiter," says Leitz. "And whatever that arbiter decides is binding. So he or she could decide to drop it, that DEA doesn’t have a case, or they could decide the district doesn’t have a case, or they could come up with their own remedy that both sides would have to agree to it."

Leitz isn’t sure how this could affect this year’s negotiations on either side, but he says DEA members were disappointed after the school board’s decision.

"We all came down to this classroom and kinda hugged it out," says Leitz. "But you know – it’s not gonna affect the way we do our jobs."

The DEA and the district will enter into negotiations for a new agreement in March. The current three-year agreement is good through June 30. 

Contact the author at hannah@kdlg.org.