Meridian school trustees impose contracts on teachers

Union officials say they're disappointed the district won't keep talking.

broberts@idahostatesman.comJuly 2, 2013 

Idaho's largest school district may be the first to declare an impasse in teacher negotiations and issue contracts containing its latest offer, ending union talks that had stretched out for five months.

Meridian's decision grew out of a new Idaho law that says school boards must send out one-year contracts by July 1. An opinion from the Attorney General's office says boards have a couple of choices in handling those contracts: issue contracts subject to change with continued negotiations, or put its last offer into the contracts and end the negotiations, said Linda Clark, district superintendent.

"What decides an impasse is not the July 1 date," said Paul Stark, Idaho Education Association general counsel.

Stark said he is unaware of any other district that has taken the same steps as Meridian. Nampa approved a contract Friday, but said it would continue its often-tense talks with teachers.

Meridian's dustup grows out of laws dealing with teacher negotiations that date to the Students Come First legislation pushed by State Schools Chief Tom Luna, passed by lawmakers in 2011 and overturned by voters last fall.

That legislation set a deadline for teacher contracts and gave districts authority to put their last, best offer into contracts if negotiations hit an impasse. Those laws were repealed. The 2013 Legislature, backed by the Idaho School Boards Association, revived several, including setting the July 1 deadline and lining up the one-year contracts with the state's fiscal year.

Clark said the biggest problem the district faces is that the Legislature didn't clarify what the deadline means, she said.

Meridian trustees shut the door on future negotiations Monday after talks that ended Friday failed to close a $4 million gap, coming largely from a demand for more pay increases based on a teachers' length of service. Teachers did make nearly $8 million in concessions.

Meridian teachers were working on having negotiations completed by late July and the trustees' decision caught them by surprise, state union officials say.

At the Friday meeting, Amy White, an attorney hired by the district to conduct negotiations, did advise the Meridian teacher negotiating team that the board was meeting Monday.

Stark would not speculate on whether the union would consider legal action against the district's decision. Those questions are up to the Meridian Education Association, Stark said. No one has asked him yet to do a legal analysis of the district's decision.

Meridian Education Association officials could not be reached for comment.

The Meridian district spent most of its reserve funds in the past three years to cover eduction costs and does not have money to meet teachers' demands, said Clark.

"To sit at the bargaining table would really be being dishonest with people," she said.

Boise and its teachers have a signed contract. Idaho districts such as Twin Falls, Bonneville District 93 near Idaho Falls and Pocatello are continuing negotiations even after approving contracts to meet the July 1 deadline.

Some are bringing in federal negotiators; some talks may not begin until August. None of those have imposed contracts as Meridian did.

In Pocatello, for example, the school board issued contracts for its 700 teachers at its June meeting. But negotiations are continuing and have not gotten to the matter of pay yet, said Mary Vagner, superintendent.

Pocatello didn't consider imposing a contract because "the law is not clear on that," Vagner said.

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

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