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N.D. Teachers, School Boards Split Over Arbitration Vote

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A nearly two-decades-old debate in North Dakota over binding arbitration for teacher contracts will be resolved next week when the question goes before state voters.

The issue has generated passionate differences between the state's teachers, who staunchly support a bill already passed by the legislature to allow stalled contract negotiations to be settled by an independent panel, and advocates for school boards, who reject the idea that outsiders could make the decisions school boards are elected to make.

Representatives of both sides agree, though, that the question prompts little emotion from North Dakotans generally.

"For most citizens, it's not an issue they're very interested in,'' said Walt Hatlestad, the president of the North Dakota Education Association.

The most recent indicator of public sentiment on the issue is a poll commissioned by the N.D.E.A. last fall. It showed 45 percent of respondents favoring the proposal, 25 percent opposed, and 30 percent undecided.

Even so, the 7,200-member union is trying not to leave the election results to chance. It is investing $70,000 in member education and television and radio advertising.

The North Dakota School Boards Association has no plans to run a media campaign. Instead, it has been relying on word of mouth by its 1,500 members, said Barbara Norby, the group's assistant executive director.

Despite the lack of much public interest in binding arbitration, other issues on the June 9 ballot could lure voters to the polls. There is a question on whether the state's retail businesses should be open on Sunday, as well as a contest for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Loss of Accountability Seen

The legislature passed the binding-arbitration bill in 1991. Before the law could go into effect, however, successful petition campaign against it forced the measure to appear on the ballot.

The petition drive was spearheaded by Kent French, a Bismarck businessman, who argues that the binding-arbitration plan "goes against everything democratic'' and "takes us one step farther away from merit pay'' for teachers.

Under the current negotiating system, if talks break down between teacher representatives and the school board, a three-member fact-finding panel is called in to try to find common ground and issue a report.

If the report is rejected, it is published in a local newspaper, and negotiations must resume.

If agreement still cannot be reached, the school board may issue a contract unilaterally, which individual teachers may accept or reject.

Under the legislation being put before the voters, the fact-finding commission would be replaced by an arbitration panel.

Each side would pick a representative who lives in the school district. Those two members would then have five days to choose a third person "from the surrounding area'' to serve as chairman or, failing that, select one from federal or state lists of mediators.

The arbitration panel would then pick the final offer of either the teachers or the school board. The decision would be final and binding.

The system would expire on June 30, 1995, unless renewed by the legislature.

"We think it will provide more realistic proposals and bargaining,'' Mr. Hatlestad said.

But Ms. Norby said the proposal "takes the decisionmaking authority away from the elected school board and puts it with a three-member appointed panel ... that [faces] no accountability from taxpayers.''

"It comes out to be taxation without representation,'' Ms. Norby added, "if the tax levy increases as a result of the arbitration panel choosing one or the other of the proposals.''

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