January 13, 2002 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Contract negotiations between the Elgin School District and its teachers and classified staff have hit another snag.

A mediation session was recently canceled due to a serious misunderstanding.

The session, scheduled for Jan. 8, was canceled after the Oregon School Employee Association filed a petition asking that the Elgin School Districts classified staff be separated from the teachers bargaining unit. This would allow the classified staff to join OSEA.

The school districts classified staff and teachers have been negotiating as one bargaining unit for about 10 years.

OSEA filed the petition after members of Elgins classified staff signed cards indicating that they wanted a representative to give a presentation about the union. The employees did not realize that OSEA would file a petition for separation if they signed the cards, said Voleny Rysdam, a secretary in the school districts office and a representative of the school districts classified employees.

The Elgin School Board asked that the mediation session be canceled after it was learned that the petition for separation had been filed. The classified staff have requested that OSEAs petition for separation be withdrawn, Rysdam said.

Once the petition is withdrawn, bargaining between the school district and its teachers and classified staff can resume, said second grade teacher Marta Naughton, president of the Elgin Education Association and a member of the bargaining team made up of teachers and classified staff.

The Elgin School District has 24 to 26 teachers and 14 to 16 classified staff, which includes secretaries, cooks, custodians, teacher aides and librarians.

Naughton said she can understand why classified staff members would want to bargain separately. She said that negotiating for both the teachers and classified staff is complicated. One reason is that teachers receive salaries and classified staff are paid an hourly wage.

The latest setback comes about two months after the teachers and classified staff rejected a tentative agreement reached by employee bargaining teams and the school administration.

Fridays were the major reason the proposed contract was rejected in November. The teachers and classified staff had asked that they be released from school at noon on Fridays. Terms of the tentative agreement would have allowed teachers to be released at noon one Friday a month and at 3 p.m. the remaining Fridays.

The tentative agreement would not have allowed classified employees to have any portion of Friday afternoons off, which is why the tentative agreement was rejected, Naughton said.

Classes are now dismissed at noon Fridays but school district employees must remain on the job until 4 p.m. Teachers are available to help students with school work in the afternoon.

The rejected agreement would not have given teachers or classified staff a base salary increase, however, it would have allowed salary schedules to remain in place.

The rejected November offer would have boosted what the school district pays for health insurance by $21 to $495 a month per employee.

No bargaining sessions have been conducted since the tentative agreement was rejected. Another bargaining session probably will not be conducted for at least a month since the parties are in mediation.

Naughton explained that it will take more than a month to get someone from the state to serve as a mediator for the next bargaining session.

Elgins teachers and classified staff are in the final year of a four-year contract. A re-opener clause allows salaries and benefits to be renegotiated each year.

Dick Mason can be reached by e-mail at dmason@lagrandeobserver. com.