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Idaho moves to strip collective bargaining rights from teachers

Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, the House sponsor of SB 1108, tells the House that school districts face high costs to remove poor teachers, and he said, “That’s not right.” (Betsy Russell)
Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, the House sponsor of SB 1108, tells the House that school districts face high costs to remove poor teachers, and he said, “That’s not right.” (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - The Idaho House gave final passage to a far-reaching bill that removes most of teachers’ existing collective bargaining rights Tuesday, sending the measure to the governor’s desk and marking a big win for state schools Superintendent Tom Luna, who proposed the plan.

Luna hailed the move, calling it “a great step forward,” while Idaho’s teachers union, the Idaho Education Association, declared a “Day of Action” with after-school rallies across the state today to protest.

“Idahoans have spoken out for two months against these bills, but lawmakers refuse to listen,” said IEA President Sherri Wood. The association opposed Luna’s successful re-election bid this year and sponsored an independent expenditure campaign for his opponent.

Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, the bill’s House sponsor, told the House as its three-hour-plus debate came to a close, “I realize this touches all of our nerves in one way or another.”

“You do remember your good teachers,” Nonini said. But he said school districts face high costs when they try to remove a poor teacher. “That’s not right,” he said.

The bill passed on a 48-22 vote; it had earlier passed the Senate by a more narrow margin. Gov. Butch Otter is among the bill’s co-sponsors and has indicated he’ll sign it into law.

Nine Republicans joined every House Democrat in opposing the bill; only Republicans voted in favor. But the debate Tuesday was dominated by the bill’s opponents.

Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, said, “Let’s stop pretending that SB 1108 has anything to do with” improving student achievement. “The bill intends to dismantle the Idaho Education Association, put teachers in their place, and make sure that teachers are effectively silenced … where frankly their expertise ought to be welcome.”

House Democrats forced the full reading of the 25-page bill as a protest move, which took almost an hour.

Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, said he didn’t pay much attention as the bill was read in full in the House chamber, but he paid very close attention when he read the bill himself, and made notes. “This is a very mean-spirited bill,” Smith told the House. “It goes beyond bashing unions, it bashes teachers, and that to me is not a good direction to go. It turns teachers into powerless pawns of this political system. I’m no fan of the IEA, but I love the teachers that have taught my kids and are teaching my grandkids, and I don’t want to do this to them.”

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, a retired teacher, said Nonini was mistaken when he told the House that under current collective bargaining laws, teachers and districts rarely reach amiable agreements. “And how do I know? I’ve been there,” she said. “For 38 years, I’ve been there.”

North Idaho lawmakers mostly supported the bill, with the only “no” votes among Panhandle representatives coming from Ringo and Reps. George Eskridge, R-Dover; and Tom Trail, R-Moscow.

Eskridge said after the vote that he doesn’t like the idea of teacher tenure. But, he said, “The reason I voted ‘no’ is I’m concerned with the arbitrary dismissal of our teachers, especially in a reduction in force, without regard to seniority.” Eskridge said SB 1108 would let school districts dismiss effective, longtime teachers just because they’re higher-salaried than less-experienced ones. “Money shouldn’t be the only factor,” he said.

SB 1108 would limit teacher contract talks to salaries and benefits only; would make all negotiated contracts expire every year; and would allow school districts to impose conditions if unions haven’t agreed to their terms by a specific date in June each year. It authorizes school districts to dismiss teachers at any time as part of a layoff, and forbids them from taking seniority into account. It also cuts funding protection for school districts that lose enrollment from one year to the next, replacing it with severance payments to teachers laid off in the fall.

The measure is the first of three bills that Luna has proposed this year as part of a sweeping school-reform plan; the second bill, SB 1110, setting up a teacher merit pay program, is up for debate in the House Wednesday. The third bill, however, which was supposed to fund the merit-pay program along with technology upgrades including laptop computers for all high-school students, remains stalled in a Senate committee; it would raise Idaho’s class sizes in grades 4-12 and eliminate 770 teaching jobs in the next two years.