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State Journal: Giving and taking in North Dakota

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A long-sought victory by the North Dakota Education Association could be short-lived if a Bismarck businessman has his way.

A. Kent French, who established a track record for repealing state legislation two years ago, wants to nullify the right of teachers to binding arbitration. "It undermines representative democracy," Mr. French says.

After an 18-year quest, the state teachers' union was finally successful this session in getting the legislation passed. Henceforth, if a union and district reach an impasse in financial negotiations, an arbitration panel will impose the last best offer of either the union or the school board.

That legally binding process replaces fact-finding. In the majority of cases, the districts have rejected the fact-finders' recommendations and issued contracts unilaterally, according to Walt Hatlestad, president of the n.d.e.a.

In many respects, that system accounted for the erosion of teachers' salaries during the past decade, Mr. Hatlestad contends. Average salaries in North Dakota, currently at $23,578 (compared with more than $31,000 nationally), dropped from 30th in 1982 to 49th this year.

What the legislature giveth in North Dakota, however, the voters can taketh away. A referral process allows opponents to put a piece of legislation up for a vote if they can collect the signatures of 2 percent of the state's population.

North Dakota's secretary of state this month approved the referral petition and gave the petitioners until June 17 to collect the signatures. If they succeed, the statute will be suspended until a vote is held, probably in June 1992.

The North Dakota School Boards Association opposes binding arbitration. "Elected school boards would no longer ultimately make the decision as to how a major portion of the tax money is spent," says the group's executive director, Richard D. Ott.

While the association approves of the referral, though, it has kept out of the fray at the request of Mr. French, who wants no quasi-governmental entity actively involved.

An admitted critic of the n.d.e.a., Mr. French traces his animosity back to 1989, when he tried to recruit the teachers' union in his drive to repeal a set of new taxes. He claims that the union refused his offer, which he says included a guarantee against education cuts.

The taxes were repealed, but state revenues came in higher than had been projected, thus preventing drastic cuts.

Mr. French claims he is a supporter of teachers, unions, and public education--just not the n.d.e.a., which he labels "hypocrites."--kd

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