Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Teacher contract negotiations are underway

New law requires discussions to be held in public

Express Staff Writer

The Blaine County School District and its teachers union discuss procedures for contract negotiations at an opening session Tuesday at the school district office in Hailey. From left are school board Chair Julie Dahlgren, Wood River Middle School teacher Brian Sturges, Wood River Middle School Principal Fritz Peters and Wood River High School teacher Michael Walsh. Photo by Willy Cook

The Blaine County School District and its teachers union kicked off contract talks Tuesday afternoon, trying to figure out procedures in light of a new state law that makes discussions a public process and restricts negotiations to salaries and benefits.

Some past procedures used by the district and the Blaine County Education Association are no longer applicable, such as one regarding release of information while talks are underway.

District Assistant Superintendent John Blackman, a member of the district negotiating team, drew a laugh from the group when he read a provision used in previous years that stated, "Do not talk to the press or public during negotiations."

About a half dozen non-negotiators, including the news media, attended the opening session.

The negotiating teams consist of six representatives each from the School District and the teachers union. Seating was around a large central table with district and teachers negotiators interspersed, apparently to avoid the appearance of one group opposing the other.

Discussions are somewhat formal, with former Pocatello school teacher Pete Black serving as facilitator and using an "interest-based bargaining negotiation method," which strives for reaching an agreement of mutual benefit.

"That's the ultimate goal—to find something you all can live with," Black told the group.

In discussing procedures, Hemingway Elementary School teacher Tom Van Slyke, a member of the union team, said the fact that the public and the news media are present at negotiations does not preclude the teams from declining to talk to the press outside of discussions.

"I'd feel betrayed if I saw something in the press that we hadn't talked about," Van Slyke said.

The teams agreed that a joint communiqué summarizing the status of negotiations would be prepared and issued at the conclusion of each session.

Nonetheless, Blackman reminded the group that discussions will be presented in the news media while they're underway.

"One thing I need to point out is that we're at the mercy of the press for honest, unbiased reporting," Blackman said.

The district and union have agreed to wage freezes during the past two years, but positions on that issue were not divulged during the opening session.

Talks are scheduled to continue from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. today and will resume from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday if needed.

School Board Chair Julie Dahlgren asked attendees to avoid disrupting the proceedings and to keep in mind that the negotiations do not represent final decisions.

"Nothing is set in place until both sides ratify," Dahlgren said.

Terry Smith:

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