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21 Idaho districts unilaterally set contracts for teachers

BOISE – At least 21 Idaho school districts are unilaterally imposing contract terms on teachers this week, after failing to reach agreement with local teachers unions – an option for districts under the state’s controversial “Students Come First” school reform laws.

In the Lakeland School District in Kootenai County, 96 percent of members of the Lakeland Education Association voted “no” on the district’s last offer on salaries and benefits for the coming year. That offer, like the past four years, includes no base salary increase but some small thaws in the multiyear pay freeze.

“The law is pretty strict now,” Lakeland business manager Tom Taggart said. “So pretty much what they rejected, we just turned around to the board and the board approved it.”

Other North Idaho school districts unilaterally imposing contract terms this week include Kellogg, Mullan and Wallace; in Southern Idaho, they range from small districts such as Middleton and Cascade to larger ones such as Idaho Falls, Nampa and Caldwell.

Carrie Scozzaro, a high school art teacher and outgoing president of the Lakeland association, said teachers feel like they’re no longer being listened to as professionals. “There’s that sort of hopelessness of not being part of the process and being accused of being part of the problem, which is frustrating,” she said.

The Students Come First laws included rolling back most collective bargaining rights for teachers; limiting contract negotiations to salary and benefits and making all contract terms expire each year; and shifting funds from salaries to merit-pay bonuses, a new focus on online learning, and laptop computers for high school students.

State schools Superintendent Tom Luna, who proposed the reforms, said it’s good news that just 21 of Idaho’s 130 school districts and charter schools weren’t able to reach agreement by strict new deadlines.

“They said there would be strikes, there would be walkouts, there would be lawsuits – none of that has happened,” Luna said Wednesday. “If you measure this against the doomsday scenario that they painted, I think this is very positive news.”

The new laws sharply shorten the time frame for teacher contract negotiations, which in the past could continue until an agreement was reached, even if that stretched into the school year.

Last year, the first year the new laws were in effect, a couple of Idaho school districts unilaterally imposed contract terms. That hadn’t happened in the previous four decades that districts had met with local teachers associations for collective bargaining.

“I think any time you have labor and management, there’s always going to be disputes,” Luna said. “It’s in the private sector, it’s in the public sector, it’s in education, it’s everywhere. The question is who ultimately has the authority to resolve these disputes. What we’ve done in these laws … we’ve given that control to local school boards, and that’s what local control is.”

Penni Cyr, president of the Idaho Education Association, said the collective bargaining process over the years has “made a huge difference on how schools are run and function, how the teachers are treated as professionals, how students and their learning environment is looked after and cared for. So I think it’s very important that teachers’ voices are part of the voices discussing how students should learn.”

She said IEA members across the state are frustrated with the new talks that are limited only to salaries and benefits. “When we try to talk about things like overcrowded classrooms, we’re told we can’t bargain that,” she said. “That’s devaluing them as professionals who know what children need to succeed.”

Taggart, in the Lakeland district, said in past years, “Negotiations had been civil and we worked together during the year. … The new law has really changed the dynamics in negotiations. … It’s sort of taken away some of the real power that the teachers union had to negotiate.”

He said, “We’ve got our work cut out for us as far as just sitting down and talking to them and making sure we can keep moving forward.”

Luna noted that 85 percent of Idaho’s teachers likely will get bonuses next year under the new merit-pay plan.

Idaho voters will decide in November whether to keep the new law or repeal it through a referendum.