Gazette opinion: Teachers willing to share budget pain

2010-02-25T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Teachers willing to share budget pain The Billings Gazette
February 25, 2010 12:00 am

Billings teachers have a valid contract, negotiated two years ago, that guarantees a 3.6 percent salary increase next school year. But a strong majority of teachers just told their union leadership to talk to Billings Public Schools about reducing that raise.

By a margin of 3:1, the 850 teachers answering a Billings Education Association survey indicated a willingness to consider reducing the salary increase in the contract, BEA President Jeff Greenfield said Wednesday.

This is welcome news for the public schools and for our community. School administration, trustees and budget committee volunteers have been struggling for months to close a multimillion-dollar gap between the costs of continuing current staffing and services and the funding that is expected to be available next year. Furthermore, district officials project that the financial situation will be much more difficult in the next state biennium, starting July 2011, because state revenues have dwindled.

Greenfield stressed that no change can be made in the BEA contract unless the teachers vote on and approve the change.

Buying goodwill

This column noted two weeks ago that a salary concession by teachers would buy a lot of goodwill as the schools seek voter approval for levies to operate the K-8 district and to provide technology to students K-12. The levies won’t be an easy sell in this economic climate. Levy advocates will get a boost if the teachers agree to share in the financial pain.

“The economy is in a bad state,” Greenfield said Wednesday. “We’re doing this for kids, for services.”

“We’re trying to set up a time to talk to the district about restructuring the salary increase,” Greenfield said. “In my mind, everything needs to be done within the month (of March).”

Billings Superintendent Jack Copps agreed that the salary costs should be known as soon as possible so the district can avoid making some cuts it would otherwise have to make in such things as teaching positions and services to students at risk for dropping out.

“Thank you,” Copps said to Greenfield. “This is clearly an indication that the teachers in this community recognize the damage that’s going to occur if all these cuts are made.”

Cultivating trust

Another encouraging sign Wednesday was that Copps and Greenfield sat side by side to talk about working together.

There was a time not so many years ago that the Billings superintendent and BEA president wouldn’t have walked over to The Gazette to talk about their respect for each other and intentions to cooperate for the sake of Billings children. The trust that has been cultivated in recent years inspires hope that Montana’s largest school district will weather the latest financial storm while continuing to deliver high-quality education to our children.

As Copps said: “You can measure the quality of organizations by the relationships developed. Together, we can find common ground.”

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