Finding funds for small-town teachers 

Doing right by teachers

The Corvallis School District has long compensated for its low teacher salaries by giving teachers creative control over their classrooms. But the relationship between teachers and school board is beginning to fray because of contract negotiations for teacher salaries.

Last week, the board met to discuss the offers on the table, the Legislature’s less-than-generous public school funding, declining enrollment and future funding options.

The Corvallis school system has, for many years, enjoyed a reputation as the best school district in the Bitterroot Valley. It’s also a poor district in terms of taxable land values. Though the teachers are some of the lowest paid in a state that pays teachers notoriously little, it could also be argued that people who live and work in Corvallis’ private sector are paid even less.

Corvallis school board chair Tonia Bloom is on the contract negotiating team and is president-elect of the Montana School Board Association. She says the school board has offered teachers a 7.24 percent salary increase spread over two years. That comes to $214,500 in new dollars the school board would have to find in the existing budget. That’s on top of the $147,000 mainly in maintenance costs the board just cut from the general fund budget.

The teachers’ union has proposed a one-year contract giving teachers a 10 percent raise, or $287,000 in actual new dollars.

The Legislature helped somewhat by giving Corvallis a 1.88 percent increase in state funding, which totals a mere $53,000. “In a $6 million budget that’s not a lot of new revenue,” superintendent Daniel Sybrant told the board.

One option the board can take is to go to the voters and ask for a levy. The board has not committed to that, but if the board does, it won’t be until next May.

An operating levy in Corvallis is a long shot. Corvallis has never had an operating levy, “or at least I’ve been told that,” Sybrant told the board. Corvallis has almost no commercial property, and the wave of prosperity that washed over the U.S. in the 1990s missed the town completely.

The board didn’t finalize an offer last week, not only because the options are fairly limited, but also because the mother of the union secretary attended the public board meeting—Corvallis is still a small town—and with only three months of negotiations under its belt, the board was reluctant to show its hand.

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