Friday, April 8, 2011

Teacher negotiations to change this year

Discussions to be held in public, limited to salary and benefits


By TERRY SMITH
Express Staff Writer

John Blackman Mike Chatterton

Collective bargaining between the Blaine County School District and its teachers union was earlier planned to be held this week but has now been postponed as a new state law takes effect that radically changes the way school districts and unions can negotiate.

Gone are closed-door discussions, such as were held in the past, as the law now requires that negotiations be conducted in public. Furthermore, off the table for collective bargaining is everything other than salaries and benefits.

The changes were brought on by Senate Bill 1108, approved by the Legislature this year and signed into law by Gov. Butch Otter on March 17. An emergency clause in the legislation made its provisions effective immediately once Otter affixed his signature.

Before the law was approved, School District administrators and the Blaine County Education Association had planned negotiations for April 4-8. A new date had not been set as of press deadline Thursday, and district administrators anticipate that rather than taking four days to negotiate, an agreement can now be hammered out in one.

Regardless of when discussions are held or how long they'll last, district Assistant Superintendent John Blackman said Wednesday that the public will be notified and allowed to attend.

Off the table this year are various other issues that in the past have been negotiated and made part of the master agreement between the union and the district. No longer up for discussion are issues such as grievance and layoff procedures, performance evaluation processes and training and professional development provisions.

Instead, Blackman said, the district will now have to find ways to implement those issues in other ways.

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"A lot of those things will stay in place, but the board will have to put them into policy," he said. "We're still in the process of figuring all that out so we can know what to do and not affect teaching. We're going to be very busy because there's a lot of language in the master agreement that will have to be moved to policy or procedures."

Left on the table for negotiation is only compensation, which SB 1108 defines as salaries, employee insurance, leave time and sick leave.

Salary and benefits represent the biggest chunk of the district's budget, accounting for $43.6 million of this year's $92.8 million budget.

Blackman said an issue to be settled is whether salary decisions reached with the teachers union will be applied to all district employees, regardless of union affiliation, as has been done historically.

"Past practice was that what we decided for teachers was good for everybody," Blackman said. "It's not automatic—we've always done it, but we don't have to do it."

The number of district employees fluctuates from month to month, but currently averages about 635, including about 100 substitute teachers and other part-time personnel.

With that number of employees, district Business Manager Mike Chatterton said, any salary or benefit increases, especially if applied to all, would have a significant impact on the district budget. For example, Chatterton said, a 6 percent pay increase for all employees would cost the district about $3 million per year.

The teachers union and the school district have agreed to freeze wages during the past two years, but whether that will continue remained unclear Thursday as neither the district nor the union have publicly disclosed intentions for this year's discussions.

Chatterton said the district likely won't arrive at a position until a draft budget is completed for fiscal 2012.

Terry Smith: tsmith@mtexpress.com




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