Senate review; arbitration, benefits, and bad teachers

The full State Senate last week approved legislation that will restrict the process of binding arbitration.

Having been involved in the fine-tuning of the proposal, I’m looking forward to seeing a process that is fair for the taxpayers who bear the burden of the costs.  Our proposal will keep out-of-state attorneys away from the process, protecting taxpayers and ensuring decisions that are appropriate for Oklahoma municipalities.

Under the system of binding arbitration, when municipalities and their unions can’t agree on an employment contract, the dispute goes to an arbitration board.  The deciding arbitrator is usually an out-of-state attorney.  As a result, someone who has no stake in our communities is given the authority to make a decision that greatly impacts Oklahomans and their tax dollars.

Among other reforms, Senate Bill 826 authorizes the State Supreme Court to train Oklahoma arbitrators.  The bill also contains language to ensure salary comparisons used for deciding contract disputes between municipal employees and the city are appropriate.  The bill also protects tax dollars that the citizenry would reasonably expect to be outside an arbitrator’s discretion.

I was proud to be able to cast my vote this week in favor of a bill that will repeal a long-standing state law that benefits elected officials at the expense of Oklahoma citizens.  The bill will end a retirement formula that enables elected officials in Oklahoma to receive twice the retirement benefit as state employees.  As we reform state government to be more efficient and fiscally sound, it is time for us to put an end to the days of special treatment for elected officials.  Senate Bill 794 would realign benefits for future members of the legislature, statewide elected officials and elected officials at the county level who choose to participate in the Oklahoma Public Employees Retirement System.

We also approved a bill that will restore local control and streamline the process for terminating bad teachers.  I want to make it clear that good teachers should not feel threatened by this legislation.

Given the financial constraints on school districts and state government, we believe the current system is simply unsustainable and not in the best interest of students.  Under current law, if a school board decides to terminate a contract, teachers can immediately appeal the decision in district court, not just to review proceedings but for a completely new trial.  This process, called trial de novo, would be ended by Senate Bill 1.

Currently, it can take longer than a year to fire a bad teacher and can cost a school between $80,000 and $100,000 per case.  If SB 1 is signed by the Governor, the process will end with the decision of the school board.  There is no shortage of examples illustrating why trial de novo is burdensome for schools and bad for students.  The most troubling story we heard this week involved the firing of a teacher in Purcell which cost the district $80,000, just before the teacher was charged with lewd acts with a child.  When it takes so much time and money to remove the worst teachers from our classroom, something in the system is badly broken.

Our children deserve better, and this is a strong step in the right direction.