Western Heights resolves impasse
Agreement is reached with unionized teachers
After an extraordinary two years of impasse, Western Heights Public Schools finally reached a contract agreement with its unionized teachers and staff, offering pay raises and stipends to employees.
The school board governing the southwest Oklahoma City district unanimously approved the new contract during a meeting Monday evening at Western Heights High School.
Interim Superintendent Monty Guthrie negotiated the resolution with
the district’s teacher union, the Western Heights Education Association.
“It was a long time coming, but we did get what we wanted,” union President Sharon Teague said.
Teague, a 45-year teacher in the Western Heights district, said negotiations ground to a halt with former Superintendent Mannix Barnes.
Barnes’ educator certification has been suspended since June over allegations of fiscal mismanagement and retaliatory behavior toward employees.
Western Heights district felt sting from impasse
Reaching an impasse with unionized teachers is highly unusual for Oklahoma school districts. Remaining at a standstill for two years is even more unusual.
School board member Briana Flatley said some teachers had left Western Heights over the impasse.
The district lost nearly 40% of its workforce after Barnes took over in 2019, along with hundreds of students. The Oklahoma State Board of Education took over operations of the struggling school district on July 12 and appointed Guthrie interim superintendent.
“My initial reaction coming out was, ‘Yes, we finally did it,’” Flatley said after Monday’s meeting. “We have a skeleton crew (of school staff ), and I think that any sort of compensation we can give them for all the hard work that they’re doing is definitely deserved.”
Flatley, an employee of the state’s largest teachers’ union, took office on the Western Heights school board in April.
The new contract will include two years’ worth of salary increases, between $350 and $625 per year, that Western Heights teachers missed out on during the impasse, Teague said.
Public-school teachers receive annual raises based on a state-determined salary schedule. As educators in other districts earned their yearly raises, teachers in Western Heights worked under the same pay they did two years ago because contract negotiations stalled.
“We had people leaving the district just because they couldn’t afford the gas to come to school,” Flatley said. “So, that alone was a factor for me to fight for that, because where your money’s coming from should never be an issue.”
The agreement also includes $2,000 stipends for certified employees and $1,000 stipends for support staff, Teague said. New hires will receive a $500 check.
“I’m glad that our school board stepped in,” Teague said. “That’s what they needed to do. This should have been done a year ago.”
A chaotic board meeting last month — one in which the district superintendent and board president posted competing agendas for the same meeting — dealt a
“I’m glad that our school board stepped in. That’s what they needed to do. This should have been done a year ago” Sharon Teague Western Heights Education Association President
blow to some employees’ optimism for a resolution.
Union members had been excited about Guthrie’s proposal of stipends for new and returning staff, Teague said. But, the school board voted 4-1 to table the entire agreement, with Flatley the only vote against the delay.
“It was not a happy moment,” Teague said. Board President Robert Everman said during the September meeting he didn’t have enough information ahead of time to make a decision on the union contract. However, Guthrie and Flatley pointed out that details on all votes had been posted online in advance for the entire school board to access.
All five board members voted on Monday without discussion to resolve the impasse. None except Flatley rmained after the meeting to speak with media or the public.
“I think (the board members) received the information they needed for this meeting, and they felt more confident in making those decisions,” Flatley said. “I think this is definitely something that needed to happen.”
Reporter Nuria Martinez-Keel covers K-12 and higher education throughout the state of Oklahoma. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @NuriaMKeel. Support Nuria’s work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at subscribe.oklahoman.com.