November 6, 2010 in City

Idaho teachers sue over pay talks

Suit claims Kootenai district lowered their ‘last best offer’
Jessie L. Bonner Associated Press

Teachers are guaranteed by state law at least as much money as they earned in the previous year. But lawmakers for the past two years have allowed districts the option of financial emergencies to make cuts to help balance budgets.

BOISE – A dozen teachers in the tiny town of Harrison are the first to sue an Idaho school district over pay and benefits negotiated under financial emergencies that started two years ago, the state teachers union says.

The lawsuit against the Kootenai School District was filed in Idaho’s 1st District Court on Tuesday.

The suit claims the school board decided to worsen the terms of their “last best offer” after the deal was extended – and rejected – by teachers and that violates the financial emergency statutes.

“The last best offer that is made, in our view, needs to be the floor below which the board can’t go,” said attorney John Rumel, who serves as general counsel for the Idaho Education Association.

This is the first lawsuit the union has brought on behalf of teachers as the result of financial emergency negotiations in the past two years, Rumel said.

Gov. Butch Otter signed a bill in March that spends about $128 million less on K-12 public education this year and, according to lawmakers, slashed total spending on public education for the first time in Idaho history.

The bill also declared a financial emergency for all Idaho schools, even if their districts weren’t close to exhausting their funds, which was required by a 2009 law before they could declare an emergency.

The cuts hammered out during salary talks this spring ranged from deals that forced employees to take a handful of unpaid days off, to contracts with lower salaries across the board this year.

During the negotiations, the local teachers union and the school district often hold several bargaining sessions to negotiate pay and benefits. If both parties have met in good faith and no agreement has been reached, the school board may impose its last best offer after holding a due process hearing, according to Idaho code.

In Harrison, a lakeside community of just 280 residents, teachers rejected the school board’s last best offer in May. The deal included a weeklong furlough and no pay increases, according to their lawsuit.

The school board posted notice of a due process hearing and met on June 7.

The board then approved a deal that was different from the last best offer, increasing health insurance costs for district employees while denying them pay increases for education and experience, the lawsuit says.

The district’s new superintendent, Lynette Ferguson, could not be immediately reached for comment. She told the Coeur d’Alene Press that the terms of the final compensation package were different from the final deal offered in negotiations.

“Everything is different because we were in the financial emergency, and the time constraints that put on it. We also had an interim superintendent,” Ferguson told the newspaper.

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