WILKES-BARRE – Many school districts sharing one attorney for legal negotiations, including union contracts?
It's an idea Wilkes-Barre Area School Board members said they liked but voted against Wednesday, noting there was no definite number of districts participating, and no way of estimating savings. But at least two other local school boards have agreed to the proposal.
Two motions were rejected at Wednesday's meeting to retain the law firm of Sweet, Stevens, Katz and Williams: One would have teamed the firm with attorney George Shovlin to represent this district's interest in the Northeast Pennsylvania School Districts Health Trust.
The other would have had the firm advise and consult this district in respect to its interest in participating in a coordinated bargaining committee.
Solicitor Ray Wendolowski said the idea is for five or six districts to share the costs in legal matters that all the districts deal with, splitting the attorney fees equally. Having one attorney negotiate union contracts for multiple districts could also give those districts more clout at the bargaining table.
Board member Christine Katsock said the idea made sense but there was no information on how many districts were joining and what the costs would be. Others agreed and voted no.
But Northwest Area and Wyoming Area have retained the two law firms on issues related to the health trust, a consortium of districts formed in 1999 to lower health insurance premiums.
The trust is at risk of falling apart next year; nine of the 11 member districts submitted required one-year notice they are considering withdrawing from the consortium next June. The potential exodus comes five years after Dallas and Pittston Area withdrew and launched a legal battle to recoup what they claimed was their share of a large trust surplus, which once hovered near $20 million. A judge ruled in their favor, but the trust has appealed.
More recently, Lake-Lehman School District negotiated its own health insurance coverage outside the trust for a potential savings of more than $1 million, keeping its membership in the consortium only for dental and vision coverage.
The trust has asked those nine districts to make a final decision by mid-February, trust Executive Director Andrew Marko said, but it is a request, not a requirement. Marko said he had not heard about the move by districts to hire the same attorneys. What for? he asked.
Northwest Area School Board President Randy Tomasacci was blunt. We want them to represent our interests in the trust because, if the trust dissolves, we want our money back.
Tomasacci said it makes sense for districts to pool together in the case of the trust because they all have the same basic interests and are all bound by the same legal agreement with the trust.
Tomasacci said Northwest Area School Board also voted to participate in the coordinating bargaining committee, an idea being offered by attorney John Audi of Sweet, Stevens, Katz and Williams. Audi has set up a similar system elsewhere in the state, and was offering to do so here for area districts, Tomasacci said, but it hasn't been initiated yet.
It makes sense to try it, Tomasacci said, noting it counters the strength in numbers that local teacher unions have through their parent union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association. In most cases, the PSEA regional office provides negotiators and attorneys for local unions. In fact, Audi was a PSEA attorney before joining Sweets, Stevens, Katz and Williams.
Wyoming Area School Board President John Bolin said it was too early to talk about legal battles if the trust dissolves, but board members agreed to retain the two law firms for trust issues because they are looking for alternatives to the trust – a move that has legal ramifications with the trust and the teacher's union – and it made sense to share the cost with other districts.
Bolin said Wyoming Area did not consider joining in any effort to have a single law firm negotiate contracts for multiple districts. I don't think that was even brought up for discussion.
Solicitor Ray Wendolowski said the idea is for five or six districts to share the costs in legal matters that all the districts deal with, splitting the attorney fees equally.