Published Online: March 4, 2010

Measure Allows Idaho Schools to Reopen Contracts

A measure declaring a financial emergency for all Idaho schools that was tacked onto Wednesday's $1.58 billion public education spending plan prompted a protest by the Idaho teachers union.

Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, is pushing the provision to allow Idaho school boards to reopen negotiations on salary and benefits of school teachers in the middle of 2010-2011 school years, even if their districts aren't close to exhausting their funds, which was required by a 2009 law before they could declare an emergency.

Separate votes Wednesday to pare a total of $128 billion from the public education budget were all 15-4, with Republicans on the winning side and minority Democrats losing. But Wood's measure passed 12-7, with three Republicans — Sens. Dean Cameron, from Rupert, Joyce Broadsword, from Sagle, and Jim Hammond, from Coeur d'Alene — joining the minority in opposition.

They defected, despite Wood's assurances that a statewide emergency would be in effect for the coming year and could be lifted once the economy improves.

"This doesn't mandate that any school district do anything. All it says is, the conditions are met, if they want to do that," Wood said. "If, in fact, any changes have to be made, both sides will negotiate in good faith."

His proposal surfaced late last month during talks among Idaho school administrators, superintendents, the teachers' union and lawmakers on compromises needed to help schools navigate unprecedented budget cuts. But it was discarded during those meetings because there was no consensus it was a good idea.

Hammond, a participant in the February talks, said he voted against Wood's measure Wednesday because he had agreed to support only those savings measures that won broad support.

"I made a commitment to that group that I wouldn't do anything funny," he said. "I had to honor my word."

Though Hammond thinks Wood's bill should have been debated in the Legislature's education committees, he doesn't think objections to the emergency clause will be strong enough hold up the broader education budget when the House and Senate vote on it later this month.

"It'll still go through," he said.

Still, the move drew the ire of the Idaho Education Association President Sherri Wood, who fears districts that remain flush with reserves despite Idaho's economic downturn shouldn't be able to pressure teachers mid-contract into taking less money.

"For this to come back today, that was totally out of left field," said Wood, her eyes streaked with tears following the budget vote.

Last year, the Idaho Legislature passed House Bill 252 allowing a school district to declare financial emergencies and modify teacher contracts if its finances met certain requirements, including if the district had less than 5.5 percent of general funds in its budget. Before contracts could be changed, however, boards must follow an extensive process, including holding a public hearing.

At least 23 of Idaho's 115 school districts have declared such emergencies, under that law.

Other districts met the requirements but worked out compromise deals with employees without declaring an emergency.

"HB 252 worked last year," the Idaho Education Association's Wood said. "It will work again this year."

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna was noncommittal on Rep. Wood's measure.

Luna said he understands that some school boards would like to be able to use mid-contract negotiations to protect precious reserves before they're depleted. But Luna didn't want to depart from the compromise agreement worked out last month by education stakeholders.

Luna said the 2011 cuts to education might make this question moot for even the best-financed districts.

"I'm not convinced that after you cut $128 million that most districts won't have to declare a financial emergency, anyway," he said.

Associated Press Writer John Miller wrote this report.

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