It's another bad year for Montana's schoolteachers to be asking for more money.

Teachers unions across the state - including Missoula's largest - are finding that out as the negotiating season rolls along in having to hammer out new contracts before the school year begins July 1.

That frustration bubbled over earlier this month when Missoula Education Association president Janice Bishop told the Missoula County Public Schools district board of trustees that teacher pay needs to be MCPS' "top priority - ahead of Graduation Matters" and other initiatives.

The administration, however, says the district is simply flat out of money.

"We'll get together early next week, but we're really having a hard time finding where that money (for a pay raise) will come from," said Steve McHugh, human resources manager for the district.

Bishop and the union came to the negotiating table with a proposal for a 5 percent across-the-board pay bump in the base salary for its 560 teachers. That was three months ago.

MCPS administrators, however, didn't respond until Friday, waiting until voters decided the fate of its two levies (both of which passed on May 3) and the Montana Legislature's passage of a school-funding bill.

A school budget bill did pass, but its slight increase in the state's contribution to schools was not nearly as much as districts statewide had hoped.

On Friday, MCPS made a counteroffer on MEA's 5 percent: Zero.

That would leave teachers with "steps and lanes" increases - yearly, pre-negotiated pay increases based on years of experience and further education - and nothing more.

So Bishop dropped her original offer from 5 percent to 2 percent, and that's where negotiations sit today.

Bishop, who is stepping down June 30 as the MEA president to return to teaching, said the union's 5-percent offer was admittedly optimistic. But as the teachers' chief negotiator, she had nothing to lose in asking for it - especially since Missoula teachers received a meager 0.5 percent increase last year.

"We approach negotiations full of hope and ask for a percentage increase," said Bishop, who will be replaced by MEA vice president Melanie Charlson. "What we asked for was meant to send a message."

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Some teachers are still sore at their school board and its decision last summer to give MCPS Superintendent Alex Apostle a 10 percent pay raise and expanded benefits.

That did not factor in Bishop's bold pay-raise proposal, but she recognizes that it's still on many teachers' minds.

"I think it's time to move on," she said. "If a similar scenario played out this year, then people would be right to be angry."

On other issues, the union and MCPS are making progress, said McHugh - the increasing time teachers spend on paperwork, details of the new teacher evaluations, who sits on each school's principal's advisory board and others.

The big unknown financially right now is whether health insurance premiums will rise, and how much the district and union will individually absorb of the increase. But McHugh said the district's trust fund is relatively healthy right now, even with forecasts of health costs rising 8 percent to 10 percent.

"I believe the trust fund has been stabilized," he said. "So I'm pleased with where it is and worried about where it's going."

That worry is echoed across the state. In some cases, worry has turned to surrender.

Given the economy and the new school-funding formula, districts across the state have been unwilling to crack open the piggy bank for teacher raises, said Jeff Greenfield, vice president of the Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers, the largest public-employee union in the state.

Greenfield is also president of the Billings Education Association, which didn't even bother negotiating with the district this year.

"Instead of asking the school board to bargain with us, I just never asked them to open up the contract," he said.

That means the current contract in Billings will automatically roll over to next year. The same thing happened in Kalispell. And in Bozeman, teachers accepted a 0.93 percent increase - and counted themselves fortunate to get that.

Contrary to some people's belief - especially in light of the recent budget battle in Wisconsin - public-employees unions in Montana are not insensitive to the plight of the taxpayers who foot the bill, said Greenfield.

"It's the right thing to do in this economy," he said. "We certainly didn't think the (Billings) school board should take things away. But we understand what's going on."

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In May, the Wisconsin Legislature stripped its public employees of nearly all their collective bargaining rights to get control of the state budget. The heated protests in response drew widespread attention to public-employee unions and their power.

But no serious attempt to dismantle public unions in Montana has ever surfaced.

Still, that dust-up and other efforts to rein in such unions have "emboldened the other side," said Bishop.

And the "other side" is not made up of administrators, but "the people who are anti-union and anti-public education," she said.

The MEA and MCPS have maintained a relatively good relationship, mainly because both share similar goals and back the initiatives being pursued by Apostle and the school board - Graduation Matters, the International Baccalaureate Program and 21st century education.

"This is not the district's fault," said Bishop. "I get that completely. It just happens that they are the people we negotiate with."

In the future, Bishop said the union will have to safeguard teachers' interests and their paychecks as those three initiatives, which are mostly running on private dollars, "become line items in the general fund."

"I want us to be able to take care of the people who make that work," she said.

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

 

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