Idaho teachers, school boards debate labor laws

Union and school board representatives testify before legislative panel.

broberts@idahostatesman.comOctober 3, 2013 

  • A NEW IDEA FOR OLD SCHOOL BUILDINGS

    A decade ago, Idaho lawmakers and school districts tussled over how to improve aging school buildings. Small districts hit by high construction costs were reluctant to approve hefty property taxes to pay for building bonds.

    The issue wound up before the Idaho Supreme Court, which said the Legislature had not done enough to solve the problem. But the court did not provide a solution.

    Lawmakers responded by creating a fund to address the worst-case situations and be replenished by ordering a tax on district residents. It has been used twice.

    Now, a new idea is surfacing.

    Dave Teater, a school building consultant from Hayden, suggested that schools go on a maintenance routine meant to help keep buildings viable for up to 90 years. Buildings would undergo major maintenance investment at 30- and 60-year intervals.

    School maintenance - which runs about $60 million a year in Idaho - would become a shared cost.

    Districts would agree to kick in local property tax dollars. Lottery money that schools get would go into a maintenance fund, and the Legislature would put in dollars as well. Money would go to districts based on need, with safety the top priority.

    Teater appeared before the Legislature's K-12 Interim Committee Wednesday at the invitation of State Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene , who has said if the Legislature doesn't do more for buildings, it risks the Supreme Court becoming more involved.

    Teater acknowledges that major questions remain. How would the program be administered? What would happen to district's existing construction debt? How would such a program deal with pent-up demand for improvements. How much would the state pay and how would it raise the money?

    But even with questions, Teater said, studies indicate there are advantages to updated school buildings that show up in student achievement. Schools that provide improved air quality, lighting and acoustics see an average 6 percent increase in student performance, Teater said.

Idaho teachers and school board trustees, who were downright cozy in their support of proposals for far-reaching recommendations on educating kids a few weeks ago, were far apart during a postmortem Wednesday of three labor laws aimed at educators.

Keep them all, the Idaho School Boards Association told an interim K-12 legislative committee.

The Idaho Education Association said they need massaging.

At stake are three laws passed in early 2013 with a one-year time limit. The laws:

• Give trustees authority to cut working days and pay for teachers.

• Limit union master contracts with districts to one year.

• Require trustees to rely on more than seniority when cutting teachers.

Gov. Butch Otter's Task Force for Improving Education, where teachers and school boards found common ground in August, stayed away from the potentially divisive labor issues during its eight months of work.

But divisions were apparent Wednesday.

The Idaho Education Association alleged abuse by one board in carrying out the law for cutting salaries and days. Districts are supposed to make the cuts either as part of a reduction in force or across the board for all teachers, said Paul Stark, the association's attorney. He said the Pocatello School District did neither when it made reductions for the 2013-14 school year.

Pocatello officials said they did nothing wrong. "We followed the law in what we did and how we did it," said Shellie Allen, district spokeswoman. "That is really all I can say."

Union officials say extended master contracts, which govern a number of issues for teachers, should be allowed and the decision should rest with local trustees. They also complained that some districts would not start negotiating until after trustees learned whether supplemental levies had passed, which pushed the start of negotiations into late summer for one district.

The Idaho School Boards Association said the new laws have been used rarely. Just five of the state's 115 school districts cut teacher salaries or days, and only five imposed a reduction in force.

For small districts, laying off teachers based on seniority may mean having to take away a needed teacher with fewers years' experience while keeping a veteran whose subject is less critical, said Karen Echeverria, Idaho School Boards Association executive director.

State Sen. John Goedde, committee co-chair, suggested extending the law for an additional year to allow more time for study.

Penni Cyr, IEA president, said she would be willing to extend the three laws for one additional year.

Echeverria said she would have to ask her board of directors before taking a stand on that proposal.

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

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