Lawmaker Proposes Open Teacher Negotiations

By John Celock

A Kansas legislator is proposing legislation that would allow the public to attend all public employee contract negotiations in the state.

State Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) introduced legislation Tuesday afternoon that would open up all contract negotiations between public employee unions and government entities in the state. The bill would include subcommittees of Boards of Education and local governments that are engaged in contract negotiations. During the House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee meeting Tuesday where he announced the bill, Claeys indicated negotiations between school districts and the Kansas National Education Association, according to a tweet from Rep. Brandon Whipple (D-Wichita), a committee member.

Claeys told The Celock Report that he wants to bring more transparency in local government.

“Taxpayers have been left out of the loop for far too long,” Claeys said. “We’re going to shine the bright light of day on these back room deals being struck at taxpayer expense. Transparency is good for negotiations and serves taxpayers shut out of the process.”

Claeys said that he expects the bill to pass the Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee, where he is a member. The committee dealt with a series of bills impacting the teachers union in 2013, including a successful bill to end the practice of automatic payroll donations from teachers to the KNEA’s political action committee.

The 2013 commerce committee agenda also included legislation that would have allowed teachers to negotiate their own contracts with local school districts outside of the collective bargaining process. Claeys backed that bill, which did not pass the committee.

Claeys said that his latest bill is not an attack on teachers.

“It’s an attack on back room deals that appropriate taxpayer resources,” he said.

Whipple told The Celock Report that while he would want to read the bill, he has concerns based on Claeys’ past history with unions.

“I am interested in reading the bill. But I’m skeptical of a bill being presented concerning teachers unions by a legislator who has been openly hostile of organized labor,” Whipple said. “I am concerned by the motives that may be behind it.”

Marcus Baltzell, the communications director for KNEA, questioned the need for the legislation, noting that all meetings of full school boards with union representatives, including handling contracts are already open to the public under the state’s open meetings law. Exceptions are given for individual employee issues.

He noted that some school districts have a past history of opening up contract bargaining meetings. Ray Hemman, the public information officer for USD 308 in Hutchinson, tweeted Tuesday afternoon that his school district has opened up contract negotiation sessions “for years.”

“We’re for open government, we’re not sure of where this comes from,” Baltzell told The Celock Report. “Other districts are doing this.”

Baltzell noted that he would like to see more transparency from the state government, noting that last year state lawmakers passed a bill relating to transparency on a Friday and also passed legislation allowing school districts to end teacher tenure during a late night session. He also questioned Gov. Sam Brownback’s (R) appointment of his former legal counsel Caleb Stegall to the state Court of Appeals without naming other finalists for the post. Stegall was later named to the state Supreme Court by Brownback from nominees provided by a judicial nominating commission.

Claeys’ proposal is similar in scope to a bill that is model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council. Claeys said that he was not aware of the bill being listed on the ALEC website.

Claeys’ proposal has picked up backing outside of Kansas, with Westfield, N.J. Board of Education member Mitch Slater telling The Celock Report that he supports the concept.

“I totally support that 100 percent. Let the public see first hand what goes on at the negotiations,” Slater said. “Would definitely change the overall outcome in my opinion.”

The Nevada Policy Research Institute earlier this year said that it is pushing similar legislation in that state. NPRI’s website indicates that Minnesota, North Dakota, Florida, Texas, Idaho, Oregon, Ohio, Tennessee and Maryland currently have some form of collective bargaining transparency law in place.

Claeys said he does not see the unions wanting to back open meetings like he is proposing.

“What are they so afraid of the public seeing in these backroom deals?” Claeys said. “Why do they fear transparency?”