Educators head into a tight and uncertain negotiation season

First, negotiators in the Nampa School District had to get over the awkwardness of holding contract talks over Zoom.

Then they hit another speed bump. After negotiators worked their way through non-financial issues, the state’s third-largest school district had to figure out exactly how much money it could bring to the bargaining table.

“Since the budget was unknown for so long it has delayed our ability as a negotiations team to tackle salaries and benefits,” Assistant Superintendent Gregg Russell said Wednesday.

Contract negotiation season is off to a slow start across Idaho, and budget uncertainty is a big reason for the delay. In the past two months, Gov. Brad Little has trimmed $19 million from this year’s K-12  state budget and spelled out his plan to cut an additional $99 million next year — in response to the sharp economic downturn triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. April tax revenues missed the mark by $470 million, falling 60 percent short of projections.

The pandemic and the fiscal fallout are impossible to predict. But school administrators and union negotiators don’t have the luxury of waiting. The new budget year begins July 1, which creates a working deadline for contract talks. It’s not a hard drop-dead date. Even in better, less volatile times, it’s common for negotiations to stretch into the summer, or beyond.

The state’s new budget year begins on July 1 as well. And budget cuts won’t go into effect until sometime after July 1, to allow the Little administration to look at up-to-date state tax receipts.

But Little released his blueprint for a $99 million cut on May 8, in part, to allow districts and charters to write their local budgets. A big piece of Little’s plan: freezing teachers on pupil services staff in place on the state’s salary career ladder. This move would save the state about $26.6 million.

Little’s memo provides administrators and union leaders with some clarity — but it also paints a grim picture. While teacher pay schedules are negotiated and approved at the local level, the freeze in career ladder spending limits the dollars the schools have for teacher pay, by far their largest budget line item.

“Obviously we will be dealing with limited resources so we may need to get creative in new ways, especially as we explore what will need to be done to open schools in a post-COVID-19 world,” the Twin Falls School District said in a statement. Negotiations in Twin Falls will begin June 2.

Other districts are starting slowly as well. Kuna, which furloughed more than 100 classified employees in April, hasn’t started talking about salaries or benefits. Coeur d’Alene is still working through the budget numbers that will form the basis for negotiations. West Ada, the state’s largest school district, hasn’t started talks at all, in part because of budget uncertainties.

“This year’s negotiations present a challenge,” spokesman Eric Exline said this week.

Layne McInelly

For other districts, however, the process moved quickly. Boise and Blaine County already have tentative agreements for 2020-21. Historically, both districts offer some of the highest teacher salaries in the state — and both districts have unique taxing authority that most other districts don’t have.

The local property tax levies probably helped ease negotiations in both communities, but Idaho Education Association President Layne McInelly says that isn’t the sole factor. In better times, he said, both districts empathized a collaborative bargaining process.

“Those relationships that they have built through the years have helped them weather the storm,” he said.

Now, with all districts facing an unpredictable fiscal storm, McInelly hopes districts will be resourceful. Schools need to be fully staffed for the fall — with teachers who can help students bridge learning gaps, with counselors who can help students work through social-emotional issues, with custodians to keep schools sanitized and nurses who can spot students who show signs of illness. To keep staffing intact, he wants to see districts tap into some of the $300 million in budget reserves they have saved locally.

Karen Echeverria

“Every single dollar is a service to a student,” he said.

Idaho School Boards Association executive director Karen Echeverria says she has heard from only a couple of districts this negotiation season — perhaps another sign of a slow start.

She is urging trustees to be cautious. She’s uneasy about districts using one-time budget reserves to make long-term payroll commitments. And she doesn’t want districts to back themselves into a corner. If the coronavirus crunch gets worse, districts might have to use reserves to fill other budget holes — or maybe even reopen their master contracts.

“It’s a crapshoot right now,” she said. “Who even knows what this is going to look like?’’

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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