With five days left until the Missoula County Public Schools District breaks for summer, Missoula Education Association president Melanie Charlson thinks Superintendent Alex Apostle should stop paying attention to other school districts and start paying attention to unresolved issues at home.
She’s not alone.
“There’s so much anxiety in the district that it’s of grave concern to employees,” said Dave Severson, a field consultant for the state teachers union.
While the MCPS classified staff reached an agreement with the district this week for a 25-cent hourly raise, teachers will break for summer without having ratified a contract for the second year in a row.
In fact, teachers and the district are so far apart in their proposed pay increases that the MEA has requested the assistance of a state mediator. It’s been more than five years since negotiations between the two parties have required a mediator.
While both sides want a resolution, Charlson said, the teachers have proposed a 2.75 percent raise while the district has proposed a 1.25 percent raise, with a $500 one-time-only stipend for veteran teachers.
Missoula County Public Schools District is the only AA district in the state that has not reached an agreement with teachers on pay, Charlson said.
“I’m hopeful the mediator will assist us to get to a meaningful agreement,” she said.
Charlson went on to say that Apostle “being present and attentive to the process is important to the conclusion of the process. He’s the final say.”
She’s concerned, she said, because Apostle has been a finalist for two superintendent jobs at larger school districts in the Northwest in the past two months. In both cases, another candidate was hired.
“I think he needs to keep his eyes on issues closer to home,” Charlson said.
Apostle, on the other hand, said the district will continue to negotiate in good faith. The district is doing its best to be “equitable and fair,” he said, as well as transparent and forthcoming. The unions understand the financial perameters that the district is working within, he said.
Apostle is not involved directly with negotiations but was kept up to date daily on its progress while he was away from the district, he said.
“There is no correlation between bargaining and the fact that I was interviewing for positions,’ Apostle said.
Several school board members have voiced public support for retaining Apostle if he gets an offer from another district. Those discussions wouldn’t take place, though, unless Apostle had another job offer in hand, said Toni Rehbein, chairwoman of MCPS board of trustees.
However, there’s concern among the teaching staff that history could repeat itself. Two years ago, the school board gave Apostle a 10 percent raise after union and non-union MCPS employees accepted a 0.5 percent raise in base salary.
Charlson has publicly questioned the school board about its intentions to increase Apostle’s salary or benefits if he is offered a job elsewhere. She also asked where that money would come from – as budgets are tight leading into the next academic year.
Charlson has not received an answer, and said she feels the school board should be as concerned about teacher retention and salaries as they are about Apostle’s.
“There continues to be this pro-central-administration viewpoint from the board,” she said. “We don’t want a repeat of two years ago. Our fear is where we settle for something minimal in the best interest of the district and he gets a raise.”
Also, questions continue to swirl about what will happen with administrative jobs at two of the high schools. Teachers wonder to what extent they’ll play a part in deciding who fills those vacancies, Charlson said.
Meanwhile, the Merged Missoula Classified Employees union, representing close to 400 members, on Tuesday reached an agreement with the school district for a 25-cent hourly raise for all MCPS classified staff.
It’s the first time the classified staff has received a lump-sum increase rather than a percent increase in pay. This is an important distinction because classified staff traditionally are paid less than certified staff and administrators.
“It was give-and-take the entire way,” said Sheri Postma, president of the classified employees’ organization. “We were meeting in the middle, happy with the way things were going and, in the end, felt it was a fair settlement.”
The classified staff has until June 7 to vote on whether to ratify the negotiated contract, but Postma is confident it will pass.
However, pushing for a significant pay increase was not the primary mission of negotiations, she said. Rather, it was preserving jobs as the district works its way through the budget process.
Right now, 16 classified staff jobs are on the chopping block come next fall. While many of those are vacant positions, six or seven employees’ jobs are at stake, Postma said.
“We’re fighting for every single position that may be eliminated and finding out what we can do to keep people working,” she said.