Kent School Board members Andy Song, left, and Donald Cook discuss a decision by the board to keep Cook out of meetings with labor groups to discuss contract negotiations. Screenshot, via Kent School District

Kent School Board members Andy Song, left, and Donald Cook discuss a decision by the board to keep Cook out of meetings with labor groups to discuss contract negotiations. Screenshot, via Kent School District

A divisive Kent School Board debates new Labor Policy Committee

Heated discussion for more than 3 hours about removal of Donald Cook from labor negotiations

The split among the five Kent School Board members continues to widen over a controversial measure to keep one member out of all 11 labor contract negotiations with the Kent School District.

A heated discussion for more than three hours about the issue at the March 27 board meeting strongly demonstrated the division between new members Donald Cook and Andy Song with returning members Meghin Margel, Tim Clark and Awale Farah.

A proposal by Cook to reopen Resolution 1669, which the board adopted Feb. 27 to form a Labor Policy Committee without Cook as a member, failed 3-2 as only Cook and Song supported the measure. Cook and Song wanted the measure repealed so Cook could participate in contract negotiations.

The board voted 3-2 (Margel, Clark and Farah in favor) on Feb. 27, after a discussion of more than two hours, to ban Cook from any labor contract meetings with the district’s 11 employee groups. The board said it singled out Cook because his wife teaches in the Kent School District. Cook has said numerous times he would recuse himself from any teacher contract talks or votes because of the potential conflict of interest.

But the board members said that even Cook’s presence at meetings with other labor groups, such as office workers, bus drivers, maintenance workers and others, could indicate a bias because he might want more money for teachers over other employees. That led the trio of Margel, Clark and Farah to form a Labor Policy Committee.

Cook proposed to put the issue on the March 27 agenda, which the board supported 4-1 (Clark against). Cook later moved to reopen Resolution 1669, in an effort to repeal it, which failed. Song seconded the motion to allow discussion on the matter.

That started the fireworks among the five members.

Many against it

“I understand we went through procedures and implementation, but many voices are speaking out against it and bringing forth really good questions,” Song said. “I think it’s appropriate to reopen, with amendments to make, and to have this opportunity, after we heard from the community, to take another look at it. …Given so much advocacy, we should at least morally adhere to the community to take another look at this.”

Farah quickly responded.

“How do you quantify the voices that represent the community?” Farah asked.

“The voices present here, the community that’s been here and present, to take time to be involved in the legislative practices,” Song said about residents who had spoken at board meetings. “I feel we should open up additional conversation, rather than to just ignore three weeks of public empathy and move past.”

Thirteen teachers and parents of students spoke at the Feb. 27 board meeting to oppose formation of a Labor Policy Committee without Cook.

Margel, the board president, and Farah, the vice president, each said they’ve heard personally from community members who supported the measure. Margel said a mother of a student stopped her in a grocery store to say she backed the action to keep Cook off the labor committee.

“If there are these pockets (of support) how come we haven’t heard a single voice,” Song said. “I have not received any email for the decision, but I’ve heard many against the decision.”

Song bristled at Margel’s statement about the comment from a mother in the store.

“The way I function and operate, I don’t speak on behalf of others or bring in hearsay,” Song said. “I’m talking about what took place here, when we sit through meetings.”

That comment fired up Margel.

“You are taking my words out of context,” Margel said. “We represent people who are not able to be here, families that can’t make it here. Our jobs are to represent all.”

Song agreed, to a point.

“Voices not here should be represented, you stand for something you believe in,” Song said. “But voices shared at multiple meetings need to be respected. The community wants additional conversation. I have no problem to reopen it and have another vote.”

Farah chimed in again, he said speaking on behalf of the many immigrants in the school district.

“Most immigrants don’t know how to participate in the system,” Farah said. “It’s difficult for them to come here and participate. We make decisions to represent those that came from somewhere else. I think of those things to be able to speak for those who are voiceless.”

Song replied he would like to hear from diverse voices, maybe through a survey or other ways to reach them.

“I spoke to them,” Farah said.

“I mean as a board,” Song responded. “Why is it your people trump voices I hear today? Let’s open this up and reach those voices you say are unheard. As a board, let’s do a survey.”

The debate among Song, Farah and Margel went on and on.

“You are advocating every decision the board makes we go to the community,” said Margel, who added the board decided to approve more light bulbs but didn’t reach out, so that could be an issue.

“Did we have packed meetings about that?” Song responded.

Why have a committee?

Margel then explained that the labor committee was formed without Cook as a member to avoid the appearance of any potential conflict of interest during labor contract negotiations and so that labor groups know nothing is shared between Cook and his wife.

Song said he’s unaware of any problems labor leaders have with Cook being part of negotiations that don’t involve the teachers’ union.

“That’s the flaw,” Song said. “I asked to sit with labor reps and that has been shut down. …I am being told union leaders are against it, but I’ve not heard any of them say that.”

Margel then asked Superintendent Israel Vela to respond about the labor unions and objections to Cook participating in contract negotiations.

“We discussed it in meetings,” Vela said. “It was not formal, but we have had audiences participate saying the same.”

That caused Farah to say the measure protects Cook from potential conflict of interest issues with labor groups that he might not be trustworthy.

“It’s commonsense,” Farah said. “What we are trying to do is protect a director so he doesn’t have to face those questions at a later time.”

Growing impatient, board member Clark asked for a vote on the proposal. He claimed he had heard from people in favor of the measure.

“We are simply reliving this and stalling doing the business of this board,” Clark said. “I ask to bring it up and we can put it to a vote.”

That debate all had to do with putting Cook’s proposal to reopen the resolution on the agenda, which the board agreed to do on a 4-1 vote, with Clark opposed.

Then the board went on talking for another two hours about the proposal to reopen the resolution.

Need input from unions

Cook agreed with Song that the board should hear from union leaders.

“If unions have concern about my being in the room, bring them in and let’s discuss it with them,” Cook said. “It seems we jumped the gun to remove a duly-elected board member without talking to the public to see their concerns. …I want to hear from those in favor of this so we can address what they are worried about. We haven’t’ given people a chance, we should have a working session so they can ask questions.”

Cook also said it is up to him to recuse himself from issues with a potential conflict of interest, not a decision to be made by the rest of the board.

Clark, ready to bring the matter to a close, said the board received legal advice to form the labor committee without Cook as a member.

“We sought legal advice and we were told this would stand up as a stable negotiation climate,” Clark said about any potential litigation unions might file if Cook participated in contract negotiations. “To go back and relive this now is dragging out the process.”

Cook responded the district could face litigation for the board removing a member from contract negotiations.

“It’s a committee of four members rather than the five voters voted to represent them,” Cook said.

Cook will still be allowed to vote on the contracts, according to the measure. But he won’t be allowed to attend meetings with the unions. Cook said that doesn’t him as much information as the other board members.

Margel said keeping Cook out of the meetings because his wife is a teacher eliminates any potential conflict of interest and “puts the district in the best possible situation.”

Later, Margel explained further.

“As a board, we make decisions that are right for the board,” Margel said. “It’s for the view that there’s not even a chance of impropriety, to set up the best possible way to go into negotiations that we value our labor partners to go in fairly and equitably.”

Song returned to wanting to hear from the labor groups rather than what fellow board members are claiming the unions are saying.

“We are making a decision without a platform for them. …it terrifies me that we look at leaders, making statements, when we have not heard from them.”

Eventually, board members were done with the discussion.

Public comments

That opened up the meeting to public comment about the issue. All three who testified favored repealing the resolution that bans Cook from the labor committee.

“You should repeal Resolution 1669,” Rose McAvoy said. “It treats the whole system with a lack of dignity, you owe that to the community to show good faith in restoring dignity with the community. You need us like we need you.”

Christie Padilla, a Kent teacher and Kent Education Association (KEA, teachers’ union) representative, said Cook and Song are the only voices of labor on the board. She said labor partners will show up at the next board meeting in late April to share their concerns about the board.

“They are feeling hurt by this board and district leadership,” Padilla said. “The resolution is a betrayal against labor.”

Greta Nelson, who said she is a parent of a student in the district and a Kent homeowner and taxpayer, told the board the resolution directly conflicts with Washington law and public policy.

“I intend to prevent the district and its board from delegating taxpayer authority that is provided by an elected board member, to elected and unelected municipal officers of the Labor Policy Committee, created by Resolution 1669,” Nelson said.

Nelson concluded by telling the board she will be filing a challenge to the resolution in King County Superior Court.

After the public comment, Margel said a two-thirds vote is required to reopen a resolution, which would mean four votes in favor. Only Cook and Song voted in favor, yet another 3-2 split vote among the board.

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