Across Idaho, negotiation season gets off to a quiet, quick start

Several of Idaho’s largest school districts have wrapped up contract negotiations, a month before the soft deadline.

West Ada, Boise, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho Falls, Bonneville and Twin Falls already have agreements in place, or awaiting final approval from teachers or trustees.

This stands in stark contrast to cities such as Los Angeles and Denver, where teachers went on strike earlier this year to protest low pay. And one of the biggest wrinkles in Idaho’s negotiations has been technical — hinging on new and unexpected language on teacher pay, passed in the waning days of the 2019 legislative session.

In Idaho, most bargaining decisions are made at the local level. Districts and charters are pretty much free to draw up their own salary schedules and contract language. July 1, the start of the school budget year, represents a target date, but it’s not uncommon for local negotiations to continue into the summer or beyond, as teachers work under old contract language.

In Coeur d’Alene, the negotiations started — and ended — on Tuesday. The teachers’ union is scheduled to vote on the agreement Friday, and trustees will vote Monday.

For teachers and classified staff alike, the new agreement includes a 6 percent pay raise. The raises reflect market realities, spokesman Scott Maben said. Coeur d’Alene continues to struggle to keep teachers, losing them to higher-paying jobs in nearby Washington state.

As this year’s agreements take shape, the pay raises can vary considerably. In Idaho Falls, the average raise comes to 5.5 percent. In Boise, teachers will get a 3 percent raise and a one-time stipend of 0.5 percent. In Blaine County — where teacher salaries usually rank at or near the top in annual state rankings — the average raise will come to 2.36 percent, the Idaho Mountain Express reported earlier this month.

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One item is non-negotiable: In 2019-20, every teacher in Idaho will make at least $38,500. But the minimum salary isn’t a new concept — the state has had such language on the books for years. And this year, lawmakers funded the first phase of a two-year plan to boost that minimum salary to $40,000.

But late in the session, legislators threw a monkey wrench into the process. They passed a law with definitions and reporting requirements designed to set the stage for rewriting the K-12 funding formula. The law, House Bill 293, also said schools shall pay a minimum salary of $42,500 to teachers who have earned “professional” status. This language translates, generally, to teachers entering their fourth year in the classroom.

Little and legislators said they did not intend to create a second salary mandate, and said the law doesn’t do that.

Not everyone was so sure. The Idaho School Boards Association advised districts and charters to play it safe and work the $42,500 into their salary schedules — and Executive Director Karen Echeverria braced for a deluge of calls from confused trustees.

It never happened.

“I have heard from zero school districts about negotiations,” she said this week.

But that doesn’t mean the process has been seamless.

Bonneville reached an agreement, but the confusion over HB 293 forced the district to work the $42,500 salary into its pay schedule, said Scott Woolstenhulme, a veteran district administrator who will take over as superintendent in July.

Negotiations are ongoing in Nampa, and HB 293 has posed a challenge. The $42,500 salary means Nampa will address one shortcoming in its pay schedule, Assistant Superintendent Gregg Russell said, “(but) it has hurt our district by leaving very little for our veteran teachers.”

But even this year’s smooth process underscores some nagging, unresolved issues.

In Coeur d’Alene, negotiators tapped into local dollars to boost teacher pay. The district went to voters in March seeking a $20 million-a-year supplemental levy, a $4 million increase. Administrators pledged to put $2.5 million of the increase into salaries, and the proposal passed with 70 percent support.

That means more money for teachers in Coeur d’Alene, but that’s only a local solution. Some districts use their supplemental levy dollars to meet other needs, and 22 of Idaho’s 115 school districts don’t have a supplemental levy on the books. “It’s hit or miss as to whether the levies pass or not,” said Layne McInelly, a Boise teacher who serves as vice president of the Idaho Education Association.

In the meantime, McInelly says, veteran teachers are getting left behind. And he isn’t alone in this sentiment.

“We absolutely have to address that upper end of the salary schedule,” Echeverria said.

For this year, districts such as Coeur d’Alene and Twin Falls are finding ways to put more money into salaries for veteran teachers. In Twin Falls, that means tapping into discretionary funding, state dollars that come to districts with no strings attached.

Still, Twin Falls Associate Superintendent Bill Brulotte says the Legislature should get credit for what it has done — funding minimum teacher salaries and a five-year, $250 million “career ladder” law designed to attract new and young teachers.

“We won’t turn a blind eye to what they’ve already done for the lower end of the salary schedule.”

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