The Billings School District 2 board has pushed back until next Monday its budget hearing after one trustee called into question the legality of the meeting.
The board gathered Monday to begin the budget hearing process, and the meeting quickly devolved into a spirited and sometimes contentious debate on the public's right to know and the district's obligations to its unions.
"I think we're illegal to take this vote," Trustee Pam Ellis said.
Ellis complained that some budget material given to trustees was not made available to the public. She called Mike Meloy, a Helena attorney and expert on freedom-of-information laws, who, she said, agreed with her sentiment.
Board chairwoman Barbara Bryan balked at the claim. She said the board has been trying to move forward in good faith with the budgeting process and that Ellis has been dragging it down.
"It's been complicated by the fact that some (board) members are trying to trip us up on right-to-know laws," Bryan said.
In the end, to be safe, the board postponed the budget hearing until Wednesday and is making available all its budget material at the Lincoln Center and on the district's website.
Bryan and Ellis had a few tense exchanges through the evening, with Bryan criticizing Ellis because Ellis at a previous board meeting accused Bryan and Superintendent Keith Beeman of lying.
Bryan said there's been a serious lack of trust between trustees because of it.
Ellis shot back that trust on the board began to deteriorate when Bryan and a few other trustees tried to renegotiate Beeman's contract at the beginning of the summer behind the backs of the other trustees.
Muddying the waters was the question of the district's right to open contract negotiations with its three unions. Those contracts originally expired at the end of June.
The unions, earlier this year, opted to roll their contracts over with no increase in base pay until June 2012, at which point they would negotiate again with the district.
But the district says it has the authority to open those contracts now and renegotiate steps and lanes raises for staffers. Steps and lanes are raises staff members can receive for longevity and additional certification or education.
In various budget scenarios prepared by district staffers for the trustees, steps and lanes raises have been left off the ledger. Some took that to mean that the district was going to offer no steps and lanes raises to staff this year.
District officials have said they have the authority to renegotiate steps and lanes. The union has said the district has no authority to do it.
Some trustees and many at the meeting said it would be irresponsible for the board to approve a budget that didn't factor in the possibility for steps and lanes increases.
Bryan reminded trustees that once the budget is passed it can be amended. If the district ends up having to pay steps and lanes, it can amend the budget to do so.
Trustee Lindy Graves expressed his frustration that 10 days from its deadline to pass a budget the board was still arguing over steps and lanes.
"It just galls me that were still messing with it," he said.
With the union arguing that the district must pay for steps and lane raises already promised and the district arguing that it can open them up for negotiation, the issue will end up in court, Graves said.
Rather than pay the court costs for an expensive legal fight, he told the district to just pay for steps and lanes and then renegotiate it all when the contract opens up next year.
The board will meet at 5 p.m. Monday to continue the hearing.