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  Tuesday January 27th, 2015    

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District bled dry by excessive legal fees? (10/04/2009)
By John Edstrom

For those who have wondered why the Winona School District, ISD 861, has been spending so much money in legal fees lately, a couple of rulings handed down in the last week should provide some instruction. Both have gone in favor of the District, dismissing grievances filed by the local teacherís union.

The first came last week, in which a judge ruled that the teacherís union had no right, within its contract, to negotiate changes in providers of their 403b plans (roughly comparable to a 401k in the private sector). The union had filed a grievance claiming that it had a right the district negotiate any change in those providers, and the judge said, no they clearly didnít.

That is a rather arcane matter, but the issue which is the subject to todayís front page story regarding another decision that went against the union is a little easier for the lay person to understand. Back in September 2007, WSHS social studies teacher Dwayne Voegeli (also a Winona County commissioner) submitted a request to his principal, John Phelps, that six members of his department be excused to attend a fall convention in San Diego, to be paid for by staff development dollars.

Phelps approved only two, the absence of six members from one department on the same Friday being excessive, also noting that Friday absences in general had been unusually high, and it had become difficult to find enough substitute teachers.

Voegeli and union leaders nevertheless submitted the matter to the grievance process, claiming that Phelps ďhad exceeded his managerial rights.Ē The arbitrator ruled that district administration clearly had the right to approve (or not), teacher absence for staff development activities.

So it would appear, at least from these two rulings, that ISD 861 is being forced to spend a lot of money on legal fees, in a down economy, wrangling far-fetched grievances with a union, or at least strong elements of its leadership, that doesnít seem to recognize basic contractual obligations, or care to acknowledge basic authority from administration. One would think these people would be embarrassed to publicly grieve their right to authorize a San Diego junket for six teachers from the same department on the same day, over the objection of the school principal. Apparently not.

The same leadership is also not embarrassed to demand mediation in salary negotiations this year, without having so much as submitting a wage proposal or even responding to the districtís proposal. At the first meeting, only the beginning of which was open to the public, they variously refused to be photographed or asserted that they are not public.

Their opening demand is for 2% wage increases in each of the next two years, as well as an increase in health care insurance coverage, the usual steps and lanes pay bumps for longevity and continuing education, as well as other contract improvements.

In the meantime, administration and most of the other school workers have settled for pay freezes, the district bled dry, no doubt, by excessive legal expenditures.



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