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Schools in teacher pay talks under June deadline

by Jessie L. Bonner
| April 15, 2010 9:00 PM

BOISE - School districts are under a June 6 deadline in negotiations with teachers to lower pay and benefits next year and help offset deep cuts to public education funding.

Gov. Butch Otter signed a bill on March 31 that spends about $128 million less on public schools during the next fiscal year and declared a financial emergency for all Idaho schools.

The measure allows school boards to negotiate lower pay for teachers even if their districts aren't close to exhausting their funds, a threshold that was required by a 2009 law before they could declare an emergency.

While Idaho's public school teachers have been guaranteed by law at least as much money as they earned in the previous year, lawmakers for the past two years have allowed districts the option of making cuts.

The $1.58 billion budget for schools is down about 7.5 percent and, according to lawmakers, slashes total spending on public education for the first time in Idaho history.

Districts have 67 days from when Otter signed the bill to finish contract negotiations under the new financial emergency provision, said Karen Echeverria, executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association.

And House GOP leaders cautioned local school boards that an additional 3.5 percent to 5.5 percent shortfall next year was a "distinct possibility" if state revenue falls below April's target.

House Speaker Lawrence Denney, Majority Leader Mike Moyle, Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke and Majority Caucus Chair Ken Roberts warned school boards in an April 5 letter that they would not be able to reopen negotiations on the salary and benefits of teachers in the middle of the school year to help make up for additional funding shortfalls.

A bulk of an Idaho school district's budget - up to 90 percent - is dedicated to salaries and benefits. School administrators should plan for another shortfall and negotiate with local teachers unions accordingly, the lawmakers said.

"Again, it will be your only chance to do so," lawmakers said in their letter to local school boards.

Districts that negotiate lower teacher pay in preparation for more funding shortfalls next year can always give the money back later in the year if the lawmakers were wrong in their predictions, Echeverria said.

"If the school district doesn't plan for it, and holdback does occur, I don't know how they'd be able to balance their budget," she said. "We're just trying to do everything we can to prepare for the worst case scenario."

The Idaho teachers union contends that the warning was unnecessary and lawmakers have no place in the contract talks.

"Lawmakers don't belong in the negotiating process," said Idaho Education Association President Sherri Wood. "The negotiations happen at the local level."

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