For the first time since 1975, School District 2's teachers are on strike.
The district and theBillings Education Association, which represents its 1,100 teachers, seemed close to an agreement at one point Wednesday, but talks broke down and representatives from both sides announced the strike.
At 10 p.m., when both sides left of the room where they had been meeting in closed session with state labor mediator Paul Melvin, it was evident those efforts had failed.
District Superintendent Jo Swain and Board Chairwoman Stevie Schmitz were solemn-faced and at times near tears as they talked after the strike was announced.
"It's a very sad day for us," Schmitz said. "Personally, professionally and as a mom making those choices for my kids."
She said the district's negotiating team "feel like as hard as they've tried, they're defeated."
One of the "greater" parts of the sadness, Schmitz said, is tied to funding which is beyond the district's control.
"If we had the money, if we were better funded, that might be part of the solution," Schmitz said.
Some teachers were expected to take up picket signs as early as 5 this morning. BEA officials predicted teachers would be at all of the district's elementary schools, middle schools and high schools.
"I believe we will have 85 percent of teachers or more out on the lines," BEA President Brian Ehli said in his office after announcing the strike.
Ehli said the two sides engaged in good discussions throughout the early evening.
"I believe what we did in the afternoon and early evening was good work," he said. "We could have signed off on a tentative agreement, but the school district said no."
For her part, Schmitz said the district just couldn't meet the union's demands.
Swain announced schools would be closed Thursday, but the district would work quickly to hire enough substitutes to reopen schools. The district's goal would be to open elementary schools first, then middle schools and high schools.
Swain stressed safety of the students and staff would be the district's top priority in any reopenings.
"At the core of what we want to have is a safe environment when we open," Swain said. "It is also our goal to work feverishly and diligently to keep the public apprised of where we are, to keep the community aware of our status."
Schmitz said the administration and union "parted with the same differences we've had for some time, but we parted amicably."
State labor mediator Melvin has agreed to stay in Billings this morning, but has not made a commitment beyond then. Schmitz was scheduled to meet with him and to call Ehli at 10 a.m., she said.
Ehli said much of the day was marked by frustration. A morning meeting between the two sides started 40 minutes late, as union negotiators waited for the district team to show up.
Then an idea that the union started working on Tuesday evening seemed to fall apart. The union had begun to work with numbers provided by the district's insurance consultant, Towers Perrin, to figure out how the district could keep the insurance plan intact at a cost employees could afford.
Using the insurance consultant's information, BEA negotiator Steve Henry thought he had narrowed the gap between the district's and union's proposals to $25 per employee. That would have required the district to chip in an additional $25 per employee per month, but the union thought that was a reasonable sum.
During a telephone conference call Wednesday morning with Ron Crawford of Towers Perrin, Henry discovered that a wording mistake in the consultant's report widened that gap another $33, to $58.
"I find this real disheartening," Henry told Crawford during the morning meeting. "We've been working four or five months to develop a plan and the district has been paying a lot of money (to Towers Perrin) for what appears to be inaccurate information."
After the 45-minute phone conversation ended, the two sides talked a while longer, then separated to meet individually with Melvin. The mediator went back and forth between Lincoln Center and the BEA office across the parking lot to speak with the two sides.
At noon, Larry Martin, the district's lead negotiator, met with the Board of Trustees to update them on the morning. That meeting was calm, but it was a different story when Martin met with the board at 3:30 p.m.
At that meeting, trustees were asked to vote on a strike resolution granting sweeping authority to Superintendent Jo Swain. Among other powers, the 8-page resolution gives Swain the authority to open or close schools during a strike.
Trustees argued and pointed fingers at each other throughout their 45-minute session and Swain often held her forehead.
Trustee Conrad Stroebe said it was "incomprehensible" to be allowed just five minutes to review the resolution.
"This is the most significant action I've been asked to consider in 17 1/2 years" on the board, he said, demanding at least one additional hour to review the document. "This board is slapping the process of public involvement in the face."
The situation demands immediate action, Schmitz said. "We have no choice, we have no more time."
Trustees Peter Gesuale and Debbie Richert also urged the board to wait.
"I'm ready to get up and walk out rather than vote on this," Richert said.
The last-minute nature of the document reflected the speed with which the talks deteriorated Wednesday, said SD2 attorney-negotiator Martin.
"Even up to noon today I had hoped not to bring (the resolution)," Martin said. "What you are doing is taking rather extraordinary actions in rather extraordinary circumstances."
Without the resolution, the board would need to meet continuously to make decisions during a strike, Martin said.
One portion of the document requires trustees to "maintain a unified public position" in support of SD2's position and only speak through a spokesperson of Chairwoman Schmitz. Gesuale said he will refuse to speak through Schmitz's "filter."
"The board has no authority to limit its members communications with the public. That's what this document does," he said.
Over objections from Gesuale, Richert and Stroebe, the board voted 6-2 to pass the strike powers document. Stroebe voted to support the resolution, a move that allows him to later challenge the measure.
Before trustees could leave the board room, a parent scolded the group.
"This smacks of backroom deals!" Gail Kenson shouted. "This is wrong!"
Kenson said the public needs to be a part of the decision. Students will suffer during a strike, she said.
In the meantime, the union was continuing to put in place its plans for a Thursday strike in case negotiations faltered. As of 5 p.m., strike captains at each Billings District 2 school were organizing a picket to begin before sunrise Thursday.
"We have to put into place our strike plans for tomorrow morning," BEA Vice President Allan Audet said standing outside the BEA offices.
Throughout this time, Melvin continued to meet in closed session with BEA negotiators Henry, Ehli and Scott McCulloch and Schmitz, Trustee Katharin Kelker and administrator Keith Kohnke.
At one point, at about 7 p.m., the two sides seemed relatively upbeat as they took a break and sent out for pizza. But at some point, it became apparent that the district and the union could not find common ground on salaries and insurance, the major two sticking points.
Extract of Minutes of Meeting of Board of Trustees
School District No. 2 and Billings High School District No. 2 of Yellowstone County
Pursuant to due call and notice thereof, a continuation of a special meeting of the Board of Trustees of School District No. 2 and Billings High School District No. 2 was held on November 6, 2002, at 12:00 o'clock p.m.
Nilo Cabrera introduced the following resolution and moved its adoption:
RESOLUTION RELATING TO DISTRICT POLICIES AND PROCEDURES DURING A STRIKE AND/OR WORK ACTION
WHEREAS, School District No. 2 and Billings High School District No. 2 is committed to sound collective bargaining principles and practices which will serve to resolve differences through negotiations and to avert, to the extent possible, labor actions such as strikes and/or work action, and
WHEREAS, the District realizes that a strike and/or work action is an exercise of bargaining power which a union may employ in the event a satisfactory resolution of bargaining demands cannot be reached, and
WHEREAS, the District must take reasonable precautions to provide protection to the students, staff, educational process and the property of the District during a strike and/or work action and must make certain other actions to provide for the continuation of services deemed necessary by the Board of Trustees,
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED AS FOLLOWS:
1. The Superintendent and the other members of the administration and the various principals operating under the Superintendent's direction, are directed to make such preparations and to take such actions as may be necessary to meet whatever conditions may occur prior to, during and after any strike and/or work action by School District employees. This includes deciding whether or not to keep open or to close all or some of the schools of the District and/or lock-out striking employees during a strike and/or work action. The Superintendent shall have the authority and responsibility to establish and equip a strike and/or work action headquarters during the period of the strike and/or work action.
2. The Superintendent (which hereafter includes her designee) is authorized to require that any District property held by District employees be immediately delivered to her or her designated representative.
3. The Superintendent may take such actions and contract for such services as may be necessary to provide for a continuation of operations, for the protection of School District property and for the protection of the persons and property of members of the Board of Trustees and of non-striking District employees and students in the District. The Superintendent shall have specific authority to contract for such communication, security, legal, consultant, emergency, custodial, clerical, food service, repair services as may be necessary and to purchase, rent or lease such supplies and other materials as are required to provide for the efficient operation of strike and/or work action headquarters and any facilities of the District during the strike and/or work action. The Superintendent shall have authority to establish such procedures as may be necessary to provide for alternative delivery or pick up of supplies and materials from contract vendors if necessary and to negotiate the suspension or termination of any vendor contracts during the period of the strike and/or work action.
4. The Superintendent shall have authority to hire such additional, temporary or substitute employees and to temporarily reassign such regular or part-time employees as may be deemed necessary during the duration of the strike and/or work action. The Superintendent may expend such funds as necessary to procure required licenses for individuals employed by the District during the period of the strike and/or work action. Substitute employees shall be paid at the rates established by the Superintendent. The Superintendent shall take such actions as may be practicable to give training and supervision to employees working in new areas or in unfamiliar positions.
5. Board Chairperson Stevie Schmitz is authorized to speak publicly on behalf of the District in regard to labor negotiations and labor disputes and shall be the sole person authorized to speak publicly on behalf of the District during any period of strike and/or work action. The members of the Board of Trustees agree to communicate through said spokesperson and to maintain a unified public position in support of the District's negotiating team during the period of a strike and/or work action. The authorized spokesperson and the Superintendent shall, to the extent practicable, keep the members of the Board of Trustees, the staff, students and their parents, and the public informed of the position of the School District during the period of a strike and/or work action and shall take such actions and expend such funds as may be required to accomplish this purpose.
6. Unless otherwise provided by law or an applicable continuing collective bargaining agreement, the following principles will be consistently applied to all employees who engage or participate in a strike and/or work action:
a. Any school employee who is absent from any portion of the assigned work day without permission on the date or dates when a strike and/or work action occurs will be presumed to have engaged in a strike and/or work action on that date or those dates.
b. No wages, salary, benefits, or compensation of any sort will be paid to any employee engaged in a strike and/or work action against the School District.
c. Any pay check due a striking employee for work performed prior to the strike and/or work action will be mailed to the employee's home address according to the normal payroll schedule. It is the responsibility of the employee to have the correct address on file in the District.
d. The School District will not continue contributions to any individual or other group insurance coverage or any other fringe benefits for any period during which an employee is on strike and/or work action. The District will provide notice to striking employees on how to obtain information which would allow them to maintain group insurance coverage at their own expense.
e. An employee in the striking unit who is on sick leave or disability leave prior to the effective date of the strike and/or work action may continue to be carried on such leave during the strike and/or work action subject to collective bargaining agreement provisions and applicable law.
f. An employee in the striking unit who reports for work and later claims to have become sick will be considered eligible for sick leave or disability leave but may be required to provide medical evidence which substantiates the illness claimed.
g. An employee in the striking unit who reports to work during the strike and/or work action will have a leave of absence granted or denied in accordance with a collective bargaining agreement in effect and applicable law.
h. There shall be no credit or service credit granted for any benefit or fringe benefit accrual purposes during the period of a strike and/or work action to any employee participating in a strike and/or work action.
i. Leaves of absence for any employee on strike and/or work action will be denied subject to applicable law, the collective bargaining contract in effect and the discretion of the Superintendent as they may apply to any leave request.
j. Any School District employee who takes part in a strike and/or work action shall return all assigned District vehicles, equipment, grade books, lesson plans, and keys prior to his or her going on strike and/or work action. The District will discipline employees who fail to return such materials.
k. Any employee organization or group of employees involved in a strike and/or work action against the District will not be permitted to use school facilities for meeting purposes or other activities promoting work stoppage.
7. Unless otherwise provided by law or an applicable continuing collective bargaining agreement, the following principles will be consistently applied to all employees not in the striking unit during a period when a strike and/or work action is taking place:
a. All employees are expected to report to work and perform their regular tasks and duties and whatever special assignments are requested unless personally notified otherwise by the District. Employees reporting to work and performing their job duties will continue to receive full compensation and fringe benefits.
b. If an employee is a member of a collective bargaining unit and honors a picket line by refusing to cross to continue working, such employee may be permanently replaced. If an employee reports to work and then leaves the work site or fails to perform assigned job duties, he/she may be subject to disciplinary action.
c. The Superintendent or member of the administration may require any employee to perform other than his/her usual duties during the period of a strike and/or work action.
d. Employees may be required to work overtime. Overtime will be paid in accordance with the usual practice for employees various job classifications, in accordance with collective bargaining contracts in effect. Any employee assigned in writing to perform the job duties of a higher-paid job classification during the period of a strike and/or work action, shall be paid for such work performed at the compensation rate of such higher job classification.
e. All vacation leaves previously granted may be canceled. The decision of the Superintendent will be based on the staffing needs of the District on the underlying facts and extenuating circumstances in each individual situation. No vacation leave will be authorized during a strike and/or other work action. Employees who report for work will continue to accrue vacation leave credit.
f. Sick leave underway or previously granted will be honored. Future sick leave during a strike and/or work action may be granted, but it will be necessary for an employee to furnish acceptable substantiation of the employee's request if five (5) or more work days are missed or if there is reason to suspect abuse of sick leave.
g. All paid or unpaid leaves of absence previously granted at the time of a strike and/or work action may be continued or canceled, depending on whether an employee's employment is covered by a collective bargaining contract and/or your individual circumstances. Future granting of paid or unpaid leaves of absence during a strike and/or work action will be in accordance with the provisions of applicable contract or law and subject to the discretion of the Superintendent.
h. If any employees are laid off during a strike and/or work action, the District's contribution to such employee's premium for life, health and hospitalization, dental and long-term disability insurance and for any dependents coverage thereon will be discontinued at the end of the last payroll during which such employee reported to work unless otherwise provided in any labor contract. If such circumstances occur and an employee wishes to maintain his/her various insurance coverages after the date the District's contributions are discontinued, he/she must contact the District.
8. An employee participating in a strike and/or work action shall not be allowed to take part in any extra-curricular or co-curricular duty assignments during the duration of the strike and/or work action whether on a part-time, fully paid or volunteer basis unless authorized by the Superintendent. During a strike and/or work action, the Superintendent shall determine whether any extra-curricular activities will continue.
9. A nonstriking employee, an agent of the Board of Trustees employed to provide professional services, or a member of the Board who incurs property damage which is causally related to strike and/or work action activities may be reimbursed by the School District in the discretion of the Board of Trustees for such damage to the extent permitted by law, provided that the damage, at the time of the alleged incident, is not otherwise covered by insurance and the employee, agent, or Board member has taken reasonable precautions under the circumstances to prevent such damage.
10. The Superintendent shall take such other actions as she may deem necessary in the best interests of the District during a strike and/or work action.
11. The Trustees hereby confirm and ratify all prior decisions made by the Superintendent and/or administration in connection with the preparation for a strike and/or work action.