Striking Teachers in Montana Return to Work

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Back in their classrooms after a nearly three-week strike that ended just before Thanksgiving, teachers in Billings, Mont., approved a hard-fought contract last week that will give them 2.5 percent pay raises and additional help with health insurance.

During the strike, middle and high schools in the 15,500-student district were closed. District officials opened elementary schools with substitute teachers on Nov. 11, four days after the strike began, but about three-quarters of the pupils did not attend.

Both sides said last week that while they were satisfied with the one-year contract and glad to have the strike behind them, the district's future remains cloudy with unresolved issues and the state's looming financial crisis. Labor unrest in Billings, the state's largest district with the state's best-paid teachers, may portend rocky times elsewhere, some observers have suggested.

Billings Superintendent Jo Swain said her immediate concern was overseeing a plan for the "massive catch-up" needed on the academic front, although she is anxious about next year's budget.

Teachers Adamant

It was concern over the coming school year's finances, she noted, that led a bare majority of the school board to try to hold the line on teacher salaries.

"We are looking at a $250 million deficit in overall state funding," Ms. Swain said. "As we start the budget for next year, we know there will be across-the-board cuts." The $500,000 cut needed this year in the wake of the Nov. 27 settlement will not severely affect programs or require layoffs, the superintendent said.

Brian R. Ehli, the president of the 1,100-member union, a National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliate, maintains that the district's money woes are exaggerated. He said teachers were adamant about their raises after district leaders announced that administrators' salaries would go up at least 3 percent.

At the time of the strike, the board said it would go no higher than a 2 percent raise for teachers; the union proposed 3 percent.

Mr. Ehli said teachers sought help with health insurance to keep the plan relatively stable in the face of steep increases. Under the new contract, the district will kick in $51 more a month for each teacher's insurance premium, though the deal also includes reductions in some benefits.

"Teachers are very happy to be back with the children," Mr. Ehli said last week. "But we have some concerns out there."

Prominent among those concerns is whether elementary teachers will be paid for their 12 lost days through an equal extension of the school year, which is already promised for the secondary schools.To that end, the union has sued the district, challenging the validity of the strike plan the school board hastily adopted soon after the walkout began.

Union leaders hope that a favorable ruling would, in effect, force the district to add the days for the elementary teachers.

A ruling in the matter is pending.

An unsettled feeling is abroad in the community, too. Bonnie Sutherland, the mother of a 5th grader, expressed her worries that the lost time "will affect these kids forever."

"Two and a half weeks of lost education really puts a child behind."

A partisan of the teachers who kept her child home during the strike, Ms. Sutherland, a lawyer for the city of Billings, blames the school board for not "settling this mess" before children were harmed.

While many parents had similar feelings, Superintendent Swain said the board also had heard praise from residents for being fiscally responsible. Given a round of school closings the year before last because of declining enrollments, she said, "there's more awareness now of the school funding issue."

Vol. 22, Issue 15, Page 5

Published in Print: December 11, 2002, as Striking Teachers in Montana Return to Work
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