Teachers unions and school districts often butt heads over labor contracts, but in the last 20 years, there have been few real skull bumps in Missoula.
Whatever differences Missoula County Public Schools and the Missoula Education Association have had over those years, they've never been too rancorous: Every three years, a new deal emerges and life goes on.
Enter the recession.
In Missoula, as in much of the state and the nation, long-term contracts are being viewed as a dangerous thing - for school districts as well as for unions.
"We're not sure how long the recession will last, or if we're even out of it now," said MEA president Dave Severson, who is also vice president of the statewide MEA-MFT union.
MCPS and the teachers union - as well as the union representing classified employees - are currently working on two separate contracts as a July 1 deadline looms.
And almost everyone agrees: They're going to be one-year deals. Period.
"After that," said Severson, "our crystal ball runs out."
The recession, which began in late 2008, has made long-term budgeting, normally a calculated risk, a wholly dangerous exercise.
"I don't expect a lot of long-term contracts," said Eric Feaver, state president of the MEA-MFT, which represents thousands of Montana teachers and employees.
School districts and unions like long contracts, not only because they create budgetary certainty for families and administrators, but because labor negotiations are sometimes rough and always time-consuming.
At least since 1997, teachers have gotten increases in their base salary and at least 3 percent annual raises in the contracts. Currently, the salary range - pay depends on years on the job and advanced training and degrees - is $31,000 to $66,000. (Montana lags behind most states, including Wyoming and Idaho).
But the recession has thrown the state budget, which provides the bulk of Montana's public school revenue, into uncertainty.
Add to that skyrocketing insurance costs, which most of Montana's 430 school districts face, and the contract issue becomes even more perilous.
"State funding is an issue," said MCPS superintendent Alex Apostle. "The state of Montana is going through tough times."
Since October of last year, Apostle and his negotiating team have met periodically with representatives of both unions.
Facing each other at their first meeting, both sides quickly agreed that a one-year contract would be the starting point.
"That," said Severson, "is about the only thing we've agreed on so far."
Along with a few minor contract changes, the MEA's first proposal included a salary increase of 3.75 percent for one year, which the district did not agree to. The union then offered to accept a 2 percent increase, and that is where the negotiations sit.
While not discussing details of the ongoing negotiations, Apostle said he feels for Missoula's teachers, having been a union employee himself during his career.
"I believe we need to compensate our employees accordingly, and if we had additional monies, we'd put that on the table," he said. "But in all due respect, I think the union understands where we are."
MCPS continues to negotiate insurance costs with Allegiance Benefits Plans Management, which runs the district's self-funded insurance plan.
Premiums are expected to rise significantly. Who will absorb the costs, and how much those costs will be, make up a key issue in the labor negotiations.
"That's putting undue pressure on all of our staff as it relates to union contributions, and our contribution," said Apostle.
In a way, MCPS is fortunate to have to be negotiating a new contract this year.
The timing could have been much worse.
In Billings, the school district and the union have one year left on a three-year contract, which stipulates 2 percent, 3.75 percent then 3.6 percent raises each year of the contract.
Trouble is, the recession hit while the ink was still wet on the deal, and the district is now $4 million in the red. Fulfilling the final-year raise of 3.6 percent will cost it another $4 million.
The union offered to renegotiate the contract to spread the 3.6 percent over two years, but the district rejected the offer.
Billings is not alone, said Feaver.
"We had some three-year contracts out there and now they're in their last year," he said. "And there are folks saying, ‘Wow, we overcompensated.' "
That is not a position Apostle wants to find the district in. Nor does the MEA or the classified union want to accept three or more years of meager to nonexistent pay increases, said Severson.
The next round of negotiations takes place on Monday, and it will be telling, he said.
"We're hoping we can make some progress there, and that the district moves on some things," Severson said. "Everything is there, and everything is known about the numbers."
On a couple more things, both Severson and Apostle agree.
One is that the relationship between the union and the Missoula district is amicable and open.
"Right now, Doctor Apostle has wanted to be pretty collaborative," said Severson. "For example, he has allowed me to sit in on many administrative meetings. He asks for my opinions. I suppose that's progress."
Said Apostle: "We have a great teaching staff, people who are very logical and rational. And they all understand the economic situation."
And two? That the taxpaying public wouldn't look too kindly on a three-year contract with substantial pay raises while the economy limps along, people are out of work and losing their health insurance.
"It could be that things get worse," said Severson.
Said Apostle: "We respect our voters and community, and we know that many people have lost their jobs."
In New Jersey last month, voters shot down more than 50 percent of the state's school budgets, which hasn't happened since 1976. Analysts said voters were furious at teachers unions, only a scant few of which agreed to a one-year pay freeze. Montana is not New Jersey, but Feaver said there is a time to pull the throttle back on pay raises.
"Missoula is at the epicenter of job losses," he said. "The timber industry has gone to hell. It's not just the workers at Stimson. It's also truckers and retailers. ... Politically speaking, it would be hard to argue that we should get a pay increase and everybody else should suck wind."
Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at email@example.com.