A hard bargain 

MCPS resorts to mediation with teachers

The sweltering classroom setting at the Missoula County Public Schools administration building on Monday, May 15, mirrored a less tangible discomfort that’s been heating up in the ongoing negotiations between the local teachers’ union and the school district.

Twenty teachers lined the west wall behind the seven-member Missoula Education Association (MEA) negotiating team, chattering and comparing notes and facing the utterly empty east side of the room, waiting. Then the three-member team for the school district walked in and sat down opposite the union. The gulf between the two sides was too large, MCPS Personnel Director Larry Johnson announced, and he had decided to call for a mediator, a move to which either side can resort at any time during the process: “We’ve been at this 12 or 13 times so far and we’re at the place where we’re going to need some creative problem solving,” he said.

MEA President Dave Severson responded that the teachers had come to the meeting with a new offer and had been hopeful about reaching an agreement, but that they would respect Johnson’s wishes to continue negotiating with a state-appointed facilitator on Friday, May 19. The district reps walked out, followed by teachers grumbling their disappointment at the sudden change.

The latest chapter in the long-running negotiations between Missoula’s teachers and their employer, marked by frustration and lack of progress, is hardly surprising. Since January the two sides have been trying to agree on a new three-year contract for the district’s 700 or so teachers, and now, less than a month before the end of the school year, they’re still at it. Crowds of teachers have begun to show up at recent school board meetings to air their dissatisfaction, citing facts like the following: All Montana’s AA school districts except Kalispell have settled after one or two negotiating sessions with little acrimony; everyone thought that new monies appropriated by the state Legislature during January’s special session would alleviate budget difficulties for the ’06-’07 year; pay for beginning teachers in Missoula ranks fifth out of the state’s seven AA districts, and Missoula teachers’ total career earnings ranks dead last.

School board trustees and administrators have listened sympathetically, though some carefully disagree with the picture painted by frustrated teachers, saying that it’s complicated and sometimes misleading to compare school district stats, since they’re affected by so many variables; that much-needed new state money eases some difficult budget decisions, but hasn’t solved the financial challenges facing the district; the teachers’ current raise proposal would leave the district $500,000 in the hole and unleash a host of ugly choices about what to cut.

“I’ve always said our teachers should have the highest-paid jobs in the country, but we don’t have the money and we can’t do that,” newly elected Trustee Rick Johns said at a May 10 budget hearing—comments that secured appreciation from some teachers and complaints about empty, inedible words from others.

The proposals on offer from the union and the district differ on two key issues: salaries and insurance. The district has proposed a 2.6 percent raise of the base salary, which beginning teachers receive, for each of the next three years. A complex matrix reflecting employees’ level of education and longevity in the district would also be altered to improve teachers’ starting pay to $28,089 from the current $27,678. The district’s salary proposal would amount to $1.275 million in additional expenditures, which is slightly more than the $1.271 million conferred by the state specifically for Missoula salary increases, at a rate of an additional $2,000 per certified staff member.

In contrast, the union proposes a 5.75 percent raise on the base salary of $27,678 for the ’06-’07 school year, an increase totaling $2.148 million. Employees also ask for 5 and 4 percent increases for the following two years, respectively.

On the question of insurance, both sides have agreed that the district won’t increase its monthly contribution to employees’ health-care plans for the ’06-’07 year, but the agreement ends there. The union has proposed an additional contribution of about $63 per employee per month in ’07-’08 and nearly $83 the next year, while the district has offered just an additional $10 and $5, for the two years, respectively.

The district readily admits its offer for a 2.6 percent raise is too low and Severson says, too, that the union was prepared to reduce the requested amount at the May 15 negotiations.

And while the negotiations, in the main, come down to finding acceptable numbers on which both sides can agree, the dozens of frustrated teachers now speaking up at public meetings show that the negotiations are about more than just numbers.

Keila Cross, 30, is in her eighth year of teaching art at Sentinel High School, though she also holds down other jobs to keep the lights on. Until recently, she worked as a waitress nights at the Depot while she was both teaching and taking classes to obtain her master’s degree. Though she no longer works as a waitress, she now proctors SAT tests, teaches adult-education classes and supervises extracurricular clubs on the side. And she knows plenty of teachers who do the same. One coworker moonlights at the Outback Steakhouse, she says, to supplement her income.

“I just think people would be surprised if they knew what our salaries are,” she says.

Cross showed up at the May 10 budget hearing to tell the School Board exactly that.

“I live paycheck to paycheck and I love teaching,” she told the trustees. “We’re not being unreasonable. We’re not asking for the moon, the stars, the solar system or even what we deserve.”

Jenda Hemphill, chairwoman of the School Board, says she knows that teachers—particularly younger ones—struggle with Missoula’s salaries, and she worries about the impact on recruiting new talent and retaining quality teachers who may be lured away by higher salaries.

“It’s a very difficult balance to find, because you want to be equitable and fair to all district employees and compensate them for all their dedication and hard work, and at the same time you want to look at services for students,” Hemphill says. “We’re all struggling. I think you could hear the pain of the board members because all of these things are important.”

While salaries for beginning teachers here may lag, she says, it’s difficult to compare Missoula to other districts due to other factors. For instance, the district currently contributes $575 per month toward employee insurance—the highest amount in the state—while other districts like Billings pay only $385, Hemphill says.

A range of comparisons between Montana’s seven AA districts—Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Great Falls, Helena, Kalispell and Missoula—may lead to a better understanding of how Missoula stacks up in the state. According to MEA research on the 2005 school year, Missoula currently ranks fifth in base salary ($26,173, compared to Helena’s high of $30,654); Missoula ranks third in maximum salary ($57,110 compared to Helena’s high of $66,246); Missoula ranks seventh in career earnings ($980,327 compared to Helena’s high of $1.21 million). However, as Hemphill points out, Missoula pays more into insurance than other districts, which is a significant factor. And the total tab for salaries and insurance varies greatly by district due to differences in the experience and education levels of teachers, as well as shifting student enrollment trends.

Last year’s successful lawsuit on behalf of a coalition of Montana school districts resulted in an additional $140 million for Montana public schools—part of it a one-time infusion and part of it permanent funds—for districts throughout the state and a promise to revisit the issue during the 2007 legislative session. The Missoula district received $2.7 million in permanent new money and $1.9 million in one-time funds, Johnson says, and though the Legislature suggested the money go toward certain deficient needs (like Indian Education for All funding, teacher retention and recruitment and building maintenance) that have suffered from more than a decade of legislative neglect, the state didn’t require that the money actually be directed to any particular use or another.

“This is an interesting position that the Legislature put the schools in,” Johnson says. “Where to spend it will be a board decision. That’s part of the dance with negotiations.”

In particular, it’s important that money the Legislature intended to go toward Indian Education for All not be diverted for teacher negotiations, an adhoc committee that developed recommendations for the money’s use said at the May 10 budget hearing. Several trustees stressed their agreement, as did Severson, who said the two needs are not competing.

At that budget hearing, Severson questioned how the teachers had been able to successfully negotiate a higher raise last year (3.8 percent) than the one offered this year, when last year the Legislature had given the district only a 2 percent increase.

“Why is it we can only afford a 2.6 percent raise this year when [the district got] a 4 percent [funding increase] this year?” Severson asked.

Later in the meeting, Superintendent Jim Clark responded to Severson’s question in his closing comments to the board: “As your leader, one of my great concerns is that we have granted raises that we couldn’t afford in years past to keep our programs and our people. Dave [Severson] asked how we could afford that last year and he’s right—we couldn’t.”

Clark also brought up the situation now facing Billings, where teachers negotiated a 3.75 percent raise but failed mill levies have forced the district to find $1.2 million in cuts to balance the budget. The possibility of closing Billings’ alternative high school, as well as cuts in the number of teachers and programs, are all on the table.

“We don’t want to get into a situation like the one Billings is in—where they negotiated a contract they can’t pay for,” Hemphill says, seconding a fear expressed by other trustees.

But Severson maintains that the money is there, and that negotiation difficulties are tied to the district’s stubbornness, not to questions about making ends meet.

“It’s like smoke and mirrors what [Clark’s] doing with the budget, and I don’t think the board understands that,” Severson says. “It’s just disturbing to me that we can’t make a deal here because it would be pretty easy to.”

Johnson says he hopes to reconcile the two sides quickly through the mediation process scheduled to begin May 19. The fast-approaching end of the school year and pressing budget decisions with deadlines attached make progress a necessity, he says.

But Severson says the union has been frustrated for weeks by the district’s refusal to budge on its initial offer.

“If there was a real time-crunch, they could’ve moved sooner and we could’ve been done like the other districts,” Severson says. “I don’t think the district has seriously wanted to bargain with us.”

jmcquillan@missoulanews.com

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