January 28, 2013 in Idaho

Idaho may revive voter-rejected teacher contract limits

By The Spokesman-Review
 

BOISE – Less than three months after voters overwhelmingly repealed them, Idaho lawmakers on Monday reintroduced four bills to reinstate parts of the controversial “Students Come First” school reform laws, focusing on portions limiting teacher contract rights.

“They’re all toned-down parts of what we saw in Students Come First,” said Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, whose committee voted along party lines to introduce the measures. The panel’s two Democrats, Sens. Branden Durst and Cherie Buckner-Webb of Boise, cast the only “no” votes.

Goedde said he supports the bills, and said he and House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, have “committed to meet with the education stakeholders” to discuss them. “We will go through these bills line by line, find whatever areas we can find where there’s common ground, and then work from there,” he said. “I look forward to the discussion.”

Karen Echeverria, executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association, proposed the bills Monday; she said her group voted overwhelmingly at its fall convention to back the measures, and she has three more she’ll introduce in a House committee on Tuesday.

“This is about long-term prudent fiscal management for the school district,” Echeverria said.

But Penni Cyr, president of the Idaho Education Association, the state teachers’ union, said, “It’s very baffling that the Idaho School Boards Association didn’t hear the voters. This is the same thing, déjà vu. This is the Luna Laws all over again.”

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna championed the “Students Come First” laws to roll back teachers’ collective bargaining rights; impose a new merit-pay bonus system; and dramatically boost technology in Idaho classrooms, including requiring online classes and supplying a laptop computer to every Idaho high school student. The bills passed in 2011 without a single Democratic vote in support and amid widespread opposition from teachers and others; in November, Idaho voters repealed all three by large margins.

The historic referendum vote was the first time since the 1930s that Idaho voters have repealed laws passed by the state Legislature.

The bills introduced Monday would, among other changes, limit all teacher contract provisions to one year; require local teachers unions to prove every year that they have the support of 50 percent plus one of the local teachers before they’re allowed to bargain on their behalf; and repeal a state law that now requires that experienced teachers’ salaries not be reduced from one year to the next.

That law has been on the books in Idaho since 1963, and applies only to teachers who’ve been on the job at least three years and have been granted continuing contract rights. The “Students Come First” laws repealed it, but the November referendum vote put it back on the books.

“I’m wondering how this improves teacher morale,” said Durst, who noted that a recent legislative study surveyed 2,486 Idaho teachers and found a “strong undercurrent of despair” and perceptions of a climate that “disparages their efforts and belittles their contributions.”

Goedde said he was skeptical of those findings, developed by the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations. “If I walk into this building on Monday morning feeling good, and everybody I talk to says ‘you’re looking bad,’ maybe I start feeling bad,” he said. “I think despair is contagious, as is enthusiasm – it’s a state of mind.”

Goedde said he believes the best way to improve teacher morale in Idaho is, “We need to focus on successes.” Toward that end, he said he’s asked the Idaho Education Association, the Idaho School Boards Association, and the Idaho School Administrators Association to each bring forward examples of successes in Idaho schools. “We’ll hear them in this committee,” Goedde said. “If we can focus on positive things that are happening in education, everybody is going to be happier.”

Goedde said cutting teacher salaries beats laying off teachers. “When you’re given X number of dollars to employ teachers, either you employ less teachers and increase class size,” or reduce salaries, he said. “To me, from the standpoint of the students, it’s best to have a stable classroom.”

Asked if he expects more cuts in school funding in Idaho like the unprecedented cuts of the past few years, Goedde said yes – particularly if federal funding is cut as part of national deficit reduction efforts. For next year, however, Gov. Butch Otter has recommended a 2 percent increase in state funding for Idaho schools, and state schools Superintendent Tom Luna has called for a 3 percent increase.

Echeverria said the bills she’ll propose in the House Education Committee on Tuesday will include one to both require that all teacher negotiations be conducted in public and that if negotiations fail, a school district can just impose contract terms unilaterally. Both were features of the “Students Come First” laws that were repealed in Proposition 1 in November.

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