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Editorial: New CdA leaders bring fresh outlook to school talks

Negotiations with Coeur d’Alene teachers have taken a positive turn just two weeks into the seating of a new school board majority.

The board proposed a contract Monday that was a considerable improvement over a May version that took a bone saw to health insurance benefits. Under that plan, pregnant teachers would have faced a potential $15,000 out-of-pocket extraction for having their babies. The minimum monthly premium for a plan that did not cover prescriptions would have climbed to $333.

It’s a stretch to even call a plan like that “insurance.” One teacher called the offer “insanity,” which was closer to the mark.

The new offer will make cuts, too, but not so deep the patient dies.

The district share of family premiums will recede to 67.5 percent from 71 percent, and annual deductibles will almost quadruple. The May offer eliminated the district share to zero.

Fairness dictates that a decided improvement in the district’s finances made some of these sweeteners possible, but just as important is the different attitude new board Chairman Tom Hearn has taken at the negotiating table. After a long, adversarial relationship, imagine teacher relief when he opened Monday’s meeting with the statement “We want your help going over the financial situation of the district and coming to a reasonable settlement that benefits all parties.”

The talks are not over, and the district still has a $600,000 budget hole to fill, but the tone has certainly changed.

Disarmament was part of the reason Idaho voters last November rejected propositions that would have stripped teachers of collective bargaining rights, and implemented merit pay. Idaho schools may not be able to match pay in neighboring states, but the imposition of regressive contracts was a morale-killer.

And still is, thanks to a Legislature and governor who reimposed some of the rules rejected by their constituents.

Districts were empowered to impose their last, best contract offer July 1. Meridian, Idaho’s largest school district, did just that, enraging teachers. In nearby Nampa, where financial mismanagement amplified the budget woes, 14 percent of teachers – including six of eight teaching high school English – have left. Talks there and in other districts are now in the hands of mediators.

Too many times in the last few years, some lawmakers and school board officials have gone out of their way to provoke the people educating their children. Idaho spends less on education than almost every other state, which lawmakers try to explain away, or cheer, while they hunt for more tax breaks.

That was the attitude in Coeur d’Alene, and parents had enough of it. Hearn and fellow newcomers Christa Hazel and Dave Eubanks must work within the resources available to the district, but they are approaching negotiations as a collaboration, not a face-off. The district and all its stakeholders will be better for the change.

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