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Sides hope to have new contract before July expiration

The Missoula Education Association and Missoula County Public Schools have asked the state to assign a mediator to help them try to settle a contract dispute before the current one expires in July.

The mediator is scheduled to begin work April 29.

Negotiations began deteriorating earlier this month when the two sides shifted out of their interest-based bargaining format and started passing proposals back and forth with facilitators acting as quasi-mediators. In interest-based bargaining, negotiating teams take a problem-solving approach and work together identifying issues, options and a solution.

At a meeting April 8, the teachers' union and district indicated they thought negotiations were heading for mediation. The Board of Personnel Appeals with the state Department of Labor and Industry has designated Vicki Knudsen to mediate the contract negotiations dispute.

The state provides the mediator at no charge to the district.

"It's a fairly common step when parties simply can't come to an agreement," said MCPS Assistant Superintendent Larry Johnson, who is also the district's personnel director and serves on the bargaining team.

"It's helpful to have someone from the outside come in and work with the two parties," Johnson said Thursday.

Dave Severson, MEA president, said the goal is to get the contract resolved. He is still hopeful that can be accomplished.

So is Johnson.

Several major issues remain on the table, according to the letter sent to the state earlier this month requesting the mediator.

They include salary, insurance, compensatory time, classroom preparation days, professional growth, just cause, issues related to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, sick leave donations, sabbatical leave, personal leave, retirement benefits and length of contract.

A state mediator also will assist with negotiations between MCPS and the largest union of classified employees in the district - the Merged Missoula Classified Employees Organization.

The district and classified union will have one more bargaining session next week before the state mediator arrives May 6 to oversee that negotiating session.

Unresolved issues between the classified union and school district include wages, a restructured salary schedule, longevity pay, reclassification, shift differential, insurance, job descriptions, excess workload pay, compensatory time, lunch/recess pay, training days, money for training, seniority, transfers, layoffs, recalls and length of contract.

The classified union includes 373 employees, a work force of secretaries, custodians, para-educators, food service workers, clerical staff, tutors and other positions.

The union representing certified staff includes 387 elementary school teachers and 329 educators from the district's four public high schools.

Reporter Jane Rider can be reached at 523-5298 or at jrider@missoulian.com

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