State agencies seeing unprecedented demand for mediators, 30 out of 325 open mediation cases are school-related

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Instead of being in their classrooms, many Washington teachers are still on the picket line tonight.

With unions and school districts still at odds, often an outsider is needed to bring both groups together. But, the state agency tasked with providing mediators is seeing an unprecedented demand for them.

This year, all 295 Washington school districts opened their contracts for negotiation. Many were able to strike a deal without the help of a mediator, but that still leaves dozens of districts in need of mediation and there are only 16 mediators regularly scheduled to work in the field statewide, with a handful of reinforcements. This places a strain on the Public Employment Relations Commission that provides mediators.

Wednesday was day three of teacher strikes for Evergreen Public Schools. Instead of being at the bargaining table, the district and the local teacher’s union, EEA, were waiting for their mediator to return from Centralia, where she was handling another teacher strike.

The EEA told FOX 12 it offered to meet with the district without a mediator present, but the district refused. Gail Spolar, Director of Communications for Evergreen Public Schools, said that was never discussed by either party.

“She gave the two negotiating teams assignments to work on while she was gone,” Spolar said.

While not mandatory, mediators do play a special role in reaching a deal. According to the executive director of PERC, they do not decide what the result will be, but they do facilitate and work with the parties to come up with their own solution. However, he admits they have been busy.

“We currently have open approximately 325 mediation cases,” Mike Sellars said.

Thirty of those cases are school-related, he told FOX 12.

“With respect to teacher cases, this is the most number of mediation requests we’ve had in any one year.”

Of the agencies’ 16 field agents who mediate contracts, eight are currently in southwest Washington. Evergreen and Centralia are splitting the attention of one mediator, while Ridgefield and Longview are also sharing a specialist.

“The state mediators are obviously being pulled in multiple directions,” Ridgefield Superintendent Nathan McCann said.

However, he said he’s appreciative of how flexible his district’s mediator has been.

But some Ridgefield teachers said the delays have more to do with the district than a shortage of mediators.

When asked if union members were willing to meet with district officials without a mediator to speed along the process, teachers Kara Breuer and Stefanie Foster said, “Our district is not willing to, but we are.”

In response, superintendent McCann told FOX 12, the district prefers to wait and handle negotiations in the presence of a third-party mediator.

“I’m absolutely still convinced we’ll come to an agreement that everyone feels good about.”

Both Ridgefield and Evergreen Public Schools will be meeting with their respective teacher’s unions this Saturday, in the presence of a mediator.

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