Billings School District 2 trustees ended up in a spirited debate Monday night over how to budget for employee raises next year.
Budget forecasts provided by Superintendent Keith Beeman's office have left out steps-and-lanes raises for employees as one way to balance SD2's 2012 budget.
At Monday night's regular board meeting, Trustee Pam Ellis made a motion to have Beeman's office create a budget that included steps-and-lanes raises.
"If we don't have any money set aside for steps and lanes then we're painting ourselves into a corner," said Trustee Teresa Stroebe.
The district and SD2's labor unions will sit down this fall to negotiate salaries for employees. Ellis and Stroebe worry that not budgeting for those raises will put the district in a tough spot if the district ends up having to pay for raises.
However, with little money left in the budget, any money dedicated specifically to steps-and-lanes raises would strip money from preventative maintenance and other budget items, Stroebe said.
"Either way we are painting ourselves into a corner," she said.
Steps and lanes raises are what employees earn for advancing their education or earning certifications to become better qualified in their positions. It can also include raises for longevity.
Chairwoman Barbara Bryan said trustees laid out at the beginning of school year their priorities for where they want the money spent. Taking care of facilities was near the top of the list.
"We're in a tough position," Bryan said. "It's not an ideal situation."
Beeman said the board can use one-time money available to the district to give all employees next year a 1 percent bonus.
That could act as a replacement to steps-and-lanes raises, leaving the district free to use the general fund money it would have spent on steps and lanes elsewhere in the district.
Trustee Connie Wardell pointed out that because of the actions of a previous board, district employees had raises written into their contracts for the last three years.
Over the last three years in other places of employment around Billings, workers have been laid off, seen their salaries frozen or had no raises.
"What's happening is the reality of the economy is coming to Billings," she said.
Trustees voted 5-2 in the elementary district not to fund steps-and-lanes raises. Ellis and Trustee Lindy Graves were the two to vote for it.
In the high school district, trustees voted 5-4 not to fund steps-and-lanes raises. Ellis, Graves, Stroebe and Trustee Travis Smith were the four who voted for it.
Trustees also voted to place roughly $680,000 into a contingency fund within the budget -- money that can be used on whatever the board sees fit.
Depending on negotiations with the unions, that money could be used for steps and lanes.
In total, the district would have spent roughly $1.4 million for steps-and-lanes raises next year had trustees left it in the budget.
Jeff Greenfield, president of the Billings Education Association, the district's teachers union, said the board's whole discussion was moot.
"Steps and lanes are not open for bargaining, period, " he said. "Whatever the board debates."
A provision in the union contract allows for the contract to be opened for salary negotiations should the state legislature send less money to the school district than planned.
That happened this year and that's what allows the district to open salary negotiations. But Greenfield said steps and lanes are separate from salary and so aren't open to negotiations.
"Steps and lanes are not on the table," he said.