With a little more than one week remaining in the fiscal year, several of state’s largest school districts have yet to approve next year’s master agreements.
The Meridian and Nampa school districts and their teachers’ unions are locked in negotiations over salaries, benefits and a host of other classroom and labor issues.
Neither district has ratified its 2013-14 agreement, and all indications are the negotiations will continue right down to the wire. Meridian negotiators are set to return to the bargaining table June 28, while Nampa will resume negotiations June 27.
In the Bonneville School District, one of largest outside of the Boise metro area, a federal mediator will be called in in July (after this budget year ends) in hopes of resolving negotiations. In the meantime, the district issued teacher contracts with last year’s salary amounts included — alongside a clause that says the amounts may be adjusted based on mediation and negotiations.
As for Meridian, the state’s largest district, the two sides have met eight times since February, but failed to ratify an overall agreement when the district and union last met June 14. Eric Exline, the district’s spokesperson, said school officials are hopeful they can reach a timely agreement.
“The meetings certainly seemed reasonably civil to me,” Exline said. “The process is working closer toward something, but we’re not there yet.”
July 1 is a significant date because the current master agreements expire then.
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Karen Echeverria, executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association, said several large districts have yet to reach agreements.
“What we have found is most smaller school districts have come to terms and larger ones are still negotiating,” Echeverria said. “It’s been a mixed (result). In some districts it’s not going so well. At others, they were able to come to terms rather quickly and those folks felt like everything went well.”
But some large districts, including Boise and Idaho Falls, have struck deals for next year.
Idaho Falls Superintendent George Boland said his district was able to issue new contracts before this school year ended.
“It was really beneficial not to have that uncertainty with the end of the school year and people leaving not knowing what form of contract they would have going forward,” Boland said. “That helped from moral standpoint.”
Early on, Boland said the district involved the teachers and teachers’ union in discussions about changes the passage and ultimate voter repeal of the Students Come First laws had on items included in previous agreements.
Boland speculated discussions over what belongs in board policy versus what should be included in master agreements in light of Students Come First and its repeal may be the reason that some districts are still at the negotiating table.
At this late stage in the negotiating game, it is impossible to tell precisely how many of the state’s 115 districts have ratified agreements.
Echeverria said her organization is surveying its members, but that process is incomplete and numbers change daily or weekly.
Paul Stark, the Idaho Education Association’s general counsel, estimated June 7 that more than half of the districts had reached agreements. But Stark stressed that was an estimate based on feedback from regional teachers’ union officials and meetings.
Likewise, Penni Cyr, the IEA’s president, said Wednesday she was not aware of a more up-to-date estimate.
Even though some negotiations proved to be more intense than others, IEA officials said their members are working with districts in good faith.
“In general, things are going along as well as expected,” Cyr said. “Our members are hoping to reach agreements with school board members as quickly as possible and are working to that end.”
If July 1 comes and goes without an agreement, the two sides could declare an impasse and the district could be allowed to impose its last best offer, according to a legal opinion issued by Deputy Attorney General Andrew J. Snook.
But Stark, the IEA’s attorney, takes issue with this notion.
Even though the old contract will have expired, Stark said, both sides must follow laws requiring good-faith negotiations. Stark said his legal advice is for districts to issue “stopgap” measures, using last year’s salaries and insurance terms, until a new deal can be struck.
After the attorney general’s opinion became public in late May, some districts delayed getting back to the table, operating on the assumption that they could impose contract terms on July 1.
“And that’s not true,” Stark said. “It’s improper for one party to say it’s an impasse if there are still offers and counteroffers going back and forth.”
However this year’s negotiations end up, the process and results will likely be closely scrutinized.
Three of the new labor bills the Legislature passed this year expire after one year, and the Legislature’s interim education committee is expected to study labor issues closely once it convenes later this summer.
“Negotiations this year will be absolutely critical,” Echeverria said.