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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Otter signs as law limits on teachers

BOISE – Five months after Idaho voters resoundingly rejected laws limiting schoolteacher contract rights, Idaho lawmakers resurrected many of them.

Gov. Butch Otter signed five controversial bills into law to revive parts of Proposition 1, including limiting negotiated teacher contract terms to just one year and allowing school districts to cut teacher pay without declaring financial emergencies. Four of the five bills have emergency clauses making them effective immediately. One, the bill limiting contract terms to one year, is retroactive to Nov. 21, 2012 – the day voters’ Nov. 7 decision took effect.

In November, 57 percent of Idaho voters rejected Proposition 1, covering teacher contract provisions. Proposition 2, which concerned performance pay, was turned down by 58 percent of voters, and Proposition 3, requiring online learning, was rejected by 67 percent.

“I think it shows a great disrespect to the voting public,” said Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, a retired teacher. “They were all three put down, and I can’t believe we can’t respect that for at least a year.”

But Gov. Butch Otter said he’s proud of the new laws.

“Maybe there was some partisanship in those, I fully understand that,” Otter said. “I don’t think I could’ve asked, nor did I ask the Legislature, to only address those things that they were going to get total, unanimous support for. I said where you can find consensus, come forward with ’em, and we’ll work on ’em, and we’ll work on ’em together.”

Otter pointed to other measures that won broad support. One of those revived a provision from Proposition 1 to require all teacher negotiations to take place in public; another revived a requirement for master labor agreements to be posted on school districts’ websites. A third forbids teacher layoffs from being done solely by seniority; that’s a change from Proposition 1’s provision that seniority not be considered at all, and the bill passed unanimously.

But the five bills, like the 2011 “Students Come First” school reform laws, all passed with little or no Democratic support and with bipartisan opposition in both houses.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, recommended adding one-year expiration dates to the most-controversial bills; that way, a legislative committee that will meet between now and next January can review their effects and decide whether to make them permanent. But just two of the five bills have those “sunset clauses.”

Penni Cyr, Idaho Education Association president, said teachers have been flexible. “We came to the table and engaged in conversation every single time we were asked,” she said. She noted that an earlier version of the open-negotiations bill, proposed by the Idaho School Boards Association, paired it with a controversial proposal regarding labor negotiations; that proposal later was killed, while the open-negotiations bill passed.

Bedke said, “We have got to set up a system where local school districts can react to the financial realities of the day. At the same time, you need a motivated, well-paid workforce to teach the kids. So I don’t want to go back to any of the buzz words of the past. I want to look forward.”

The Idaho School Boards Association proposed four of the five bills; it contended that as the state’s school districts face financial crises, they need to be able to cut the teacher pay and benefits that make up their districts’ largest expenditures.

Ringo counters that the state should stop under-funding its schools, which next year are set to receive $138.7 million less in state funding than they got in 2009, even as school enrollment and costs have grown. “We might quit cutting taxes until we can live up to our funding responsibilities,” she said. “I think the solutions are kind of plain as day. We’re just not making those choices.”

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, who backed all five of the bills, said this year’s legislative talks on teacher labor laws were more collaborative than those two years ago.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said the Legislature should have taken a year off “after the voters stated their preference, to have a thorough, broad-based discussion.” She said she hopes that’s what occurs through both the legislative committee and the governor’s education stakeholders task force, which is holding public forums across the state.

When that task force came to Coeur d’Alene last week, more than 100 people turned out. Coeur d’Alene teacher David Hunt told the task force, “Educators … feel attacked and vilified. Actions speak louder than words.” His words were greeted with applause and cheers.

Goedde said he thought this year’s push to reinstate parts of Proposition 1 was more because of the economy. “We heard from our local districts, I think everyone did, that we’re not out of the woods yet,” he said. “The districts are still faced with cutting budgets.”