South-Western City Schools officials have not proposed any change to the composition of the negotiating team that will represent the district during 2010 union negotiations.

South-Western City Schools officials have not proposed any change to the composition of the negotiating team that will represent the district during 2010 union negotiations.

Some vocal critics of the district's spending and its three 2009 operating levy attempts say they fear this means the district is not serious about containing salary increases. The critics contend such increases inflate operating costs and are not economically sustainable.

District treasurer Hugh Garside said the most recent negotiating team included himself, deputy superintendent Phil Warner, assistant superintendent for personnel Gary Smetzer and an attorney with the firm Bricker and Eckler. It also had spots for a personnel director and building administrator.

The district negotiates with three employee groups. Different personnel directors, building administrators and attorneys have been on the team for different sets of negotiations. While some individuals have been different, the same job titles were on the negotiation teams used most recently.

Talks cannot start more than 90 days preceding expiration of the contracts on June 30.

Garside said the negotiating team composition is effective and unbiased.

"Our attorney's really our expert negotiator," Garside said.

He said members of the team have no ties to the teachers', support staff's or administrators' unions that work with the school district.

Bob Ruth -- a former newspaper reporter and school district resident who has criticized what he calls excessive school employee benefits -- said almost all members of the school board's negotiating team have a "built-in, subconscious conflict of interest.

"Every person (on the team) except the lawyer has a vested interest in getting as big a pay raise as they can," he said. "They are administrators. Their administrative pay is directly tied to what the teachers get."

Ruth said it is "not a law but a practice" that generally speaking, whatever percentage pay raise the teachers receive, administrators also receive.

He said he would like the school board to hire outside professional negotiators, which he said would eliminate the possibility of a conflict of interest.

"If you can get a hard-nosed negotiator in there to save a couple of million dollars, it's worth the money" to hire a professional, he said.

Jo Ellen Myers will be sworn in as a new school board member in January. In September, she said she would not vote for the November operating levy, which passed.

She has said she fears union negotiators would push for salary and benefits raises since the levy passed. She also has called the unions aggressive and the school board weak.

She thinks at least one school board member should sit on the team.

"I have a problem when somebody from the board's not there, because they represent the people," she said.

Myers said she would like to see the contracts for teachers and support staff posted on the school district's Web site.

"I am totally for transparency," she said. "Everyday people don't know what's in those contracts. Those things cost money. They should be up there for all to see."

She said school district employees are paid through taxpayer dollars, and their contracts are public record and should be easily obtained.

That transparency has been lacking, she added.

School district residents are divided because of the lack of transparency from district officials, Myers said.

Officials also should seek input from residents before negotiations begin, she said.

"Everybody has a right to know, because they're paying for what's in that contract," Myers said.

Terry Jones, president of South-Western Alternatives to Taxes, said he thinks a community resident should be on the district negotiating team.

"The community has no idea what goes on in those negotiations," he said. "We're just handed the bill."

SWCS spokeswoman Sandy Nekoloff issued a statement to The Record, saying, "regarding your questions about the board's team and plans, conversations regarding negotiations are currently premature as the newly elected board members have not as yet taken office."

Board member Cathy Johnson said it's premature to talk about negotiations until new members Myers and Karen Dover join the board.

No other current board members returned calls for comment by press time.

Dover said she understands the perception that school board negotiating team members could have a conflict of interest, but she added those members have experience with district operations and the contracts.

"I think you need to have people on the team who understand the particulars of the contract," Dover said. "I think it would best serve the community to have a completely independent team that is operating under the supervision of the superintendent and the board of education."

Steve Isaac is a member of a community advisory group formed this fall, with the goal of sharing cost-cutting ideas with the district in the wake of the November election.

Superintendent Bill Wise has said the district will consider those recommendations. Isaac said the group hopes to have them ready this month.

Isaac said he has told Wise the community needs to be involved with the negotiation process as much as legally possible.

"The (community advisory group) feels that now that the levy has passed, the hard work is ahead of us," he said. "There needs to be community awareness; the community is the taxpayers that are paying for this."

The district will negotiate with the South-Western Education Association (which represents teachers), South-Western Administrators Association and Ohio Association of Public School Employees Local 211.

For 2009 talks with the public school employees, personnel director Jamie Grube was on the district's team. During negotiations with teachers and administrators, personnel director Randy Banks was a member, Garside said.

While the team called for building administrators, Garside said none was used in 2009 because the contacts were only extended.

Garside said he did not know the names of everyone on previous negotiating teams because that was before he began working at the district.

-- Paul Comstock contributed to this story.