Lincoln Center and the Rimrocks

The Lincoln Center, which houses Billings School District 2's administration offices.

Gazette file photo

After nearly five months of caterpillar-like progress, negotiations between School District 2 and the local teachers union bounded forward Thursday as the two sides struck a tentative deal.

Teachers in the Billings Education Association will receive a 1 percent raise this school year and 2 percent raises for the next two years after that in the three-year agreement. The final conditions also eliminated a health insurance provision that union leaders described as a "deal breaker" just that morning.

Teachers had been working on last year’s contract as negotiations lasted through the summer and well into the school year. The two sides reached quick agreements on a handful of side issues, but key points like salary and health insurance dragged out.

A union membership vote is required to ratify the contract; officials hoped to have it ready for the Oct. 16 school board meeting.

Both sides said they were relieved to have negotiations finished.

“I’ve negotiated a lot of contracts, and my hat goes off to you all,” said Larry Martin, SD2’s contracted lawyer for negotiations.

An agreement appeared far away just that morning, as BEA representatives took aim at an insurance provision that replaced language saying the full cost of insurance premiums were covered with specific dollar amounts. District officials were adamant that having specific figures wouldn’t change anything in practice, but union officials said an actuary told them the changes could trigger a “death spiral,” with teachers pulling out of the plan.

“This is just too huge,” said BEA President Rita Wells.

The district pulled the proposal during their next meeting Thursday afternoon. Combined with increasing raises from 1 to 2 percent during the contact’s final two years, it sealed the deal.

A major sticking point had been money in the district’s flex fund. SD2 typically funnels some general fund money leftover at the end of the year into the fund, which can be used for special projects or emergencies.

SD2 officials characterize the fund as one-time-only money that can’t be counted on from year-to-year, and would be unwise to spend on year-to-year costs like salaries. Union officials argued that since money is often diverted from the general fund, it’s more self-sustaining than the district let on.

“It appears that your lens and our lens don’t seem to match,” Martin said.

When they did match, they got there in a hurry. After the union initially asked for 5 and 6 percent raises, the district’s first counter offered raises of less than 1 percent. Thursday was the first time the district offer went above 1 percent.

Trustees repeatedly emphasized they weren’t trying to low-ball teachers, but that they were watching out for district finances.

“We do very much value the teachers,” board chairwoman Greta Besch Moen said. “We are doing our best here to look out for the district.”

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.