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Kootenai teachers sue school district

Staff Writer | November 5, 2010 9:00 PM

COEUR d'ALENE - A lawsuit filed Tuesday by the local teachers association in the Kootenai School District alleges school officials failed to fairly negotiate the terms of compensation being imposed on teachers this school year.

The complaint, filed in Kootenai County district court, names the school district and its board of trustees as defendants. It claims they violated Idaho's financial emergency and wage statutes by imposing compensation terms on employees that are worse than the "last best offer" made during negotiations.

"The term last best offer refers to the last best offer at the bargaining table," said John Rumel, general counsel for the Idaho Education Association.

The Boise-based Rumel is representing the Kootenai Education Association.

The financial emergency provision in Idaho's education law allows struggling districts to negotiate salary cuts and furloughs with teachers. If an agreement cannot be reached during negotiations, the statute allows a district to impose its "last best offer" on teachers, provided both parties have "met and conferred in good faith."

The complaint alleges that after making its last best offer, which the teachers union did not agree to, school officials added a provision that in addition to no salary increases, teachers would also not receive increases for experience or education as allowed on the state salary schedule. The move costs an average loss of $1,000 per year to each employee.

The suit further claims the district agreed to fully fund dental insurance, but employees are now required to pay for the coverage from their salaries.

The district's compensation to employees is $22,000 less than their final offer to the teachers, Rumel said.

"We think, because this constitutes bad faith bargaining, the board decision is changing conditions of employment," he said. "We believe the district could be liable to go all the way back to what it was paying teachers for the 2009-10 school year."

In addition, Rumel said furlough days have been applied to teachers' coaching contracts, an additional provision imposed without any prior negotiation.

Lynette Ferguson, the Kootenai School District's new superintendent, said it is true that the final compensation terms differed from those offered during the last round of negotiations.

"At that point in time, everything was analyzed, and that panel came back with the decision of what would take place," Ferguson said. "Everything is different because we were in the financial emergency, and the time constraints that put on it. We also had an interim superintendent."

The teachers are seeking a damage award of triple the amount of wages alleged to have been improperly withheld by the district, interest and attorney's fees.

They are also claiming the district breached its contract with the teachers.

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