As Missoula County Public Schools administrators sit down today for the next stage of union negotiations, this time with its classified employees - custodians, food service workers and support staff - we want to commend the district and teachers for how their own negotiations were handled.

Last week, well in advance of its July 1 deadline, the Missoula Education Association tentatively agreed to a one-year contract that nudged teachers' base salary up by one-half of 1 percent.

That means their take-home pay essentially stays flat - or actually goes down a little, considering that teachers, like so many others, are paying more each month ($120 in their case) for health insurance premiums. The school district, which of course is also paying more to provide those benefits, agreed to ease the pain a little by kicking in $50 a month toward the higher premiums.

So why is a contract like this, for a group of hardworking people we think are generally underpaid anyway, cause for celebration?

Because the minuscule "raise" acknowledges the hard economic realities of the times. And the one-year agreement - as opposed to the traditional three-year contract - benefits teachers and the district alike.

With just a single year, the MCPS doesn't find itself in the same tough spot as, say, Billings, which is entering the third year of a three-year contract that specified raises of 2 percent,

3.75 percent and 3.6 percent in the deal's successive years.

That means the Billings district is locked into giving raises it can't afford, and thus finds itself in the red.

For teachers, the plus side of the one-year contract is that if the economy improves next year, they can negotiate for a bigger increase, rather than being stuck with the tiny one they got this year.

Overall, Missoula gets to avoid the awful scenarios seen in other states such as Minnesota, where a Minneapolis teachers contract has been stalled for five months, and New Jersey, where the bitter impasse between the teachers union and the state has been front-page news for weeks.

Nationwide, the Obama administration has warned, some 300,000 teachers could face layoffs this year. It's seeking $23 billion from Congress to funnel to state and local governments to help stave that off.

We're lucky that in Missoula, a common-sense approach has made it unlikely that more of our tax dollars will be needed to avoid that particular disaster.

We hope the teachers ratify the contract when they vote on it next month.

The contract itself might be, at best, a C, but the way both sides handled themselves deserves an A.

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