No talks on day one of Butte school strike; classes off again Thursday

2011-09-08T00:00:00Z 2011-09-08T00:07:47Z No talks on day one of Butte school strike; classes off again ThursdayBy TIM TRAINOR Montana Standard The Billings Gazette
September 08, 2011 12:00 am  • 

BUTTE — No communication Wednesday between the Butte school district and striking administrators will close schools for a second straight day  Thursday.

That means classes and extracurricular activities, including sports, for the district's 4,323 students will remain canceled until further notice.

On Tuesday, Teamsters' Local 2 called for the action after the two sides could not come to an agreement regarding administrator salaries for the 2011-2012 school year.

By 6 a.m. Wednesday, administrators were out with their pickets. Parking lots, usually choked with traffic on weekday mornings as parents and buses drop off students, sat empty.

Keith Miller, union spokesman and East Middle School assistant principal, was outside East carrying a picket and waving at the occasional motorist honking a horn in support.

"Strikes are tough," he said. "Tough on everybody, tough on us. It's a last resort."

Trustees called an emergency meeting Wednesday to discuss the strike and the logistics of running a shutdown district.

Superintendent Linda Reksten asked for permission to donate food from the lunch program to area charities before it spoils and to allow select nonunion employees into the buildings for maintenance and security issues, both of which were granted.

Trustees also discussed how to respond to requests by administrators to take personal leave Wednesday through Friday, which would allow them to be paid for those days despite the ongoing strike.

The board is looking into legal avenues that would allow them to deny the requests.

Pat Fleming, lawyer and spokesman for the district, said he felt the board made a fair offer to the union and felt confident that an agreement would be reached through mediation. When the union said it was not interested in going down that avenue, he knew a strike was inevitable.

"(Mediation) is the natural course," Fleming said. "I think they are bypassing a necessary step."

The next shoe to fall may be in the courts.

An interested party could request an injunction, which would probably be filed in Butte district court and could bring both sides together to find a way to lift the strike. The party would have to have legal standing to do so.

Fleming said the district is happy to enter mediation, but would not agree to long-term changes to the salary structure, requested by the union, that they estimated would cost the district $118,000 over the next five years.

"That's not something we feel we can afford to do," said trustee Rayelynn Connole.

For parents and students, the minutia of accounting arguments is lost in the reality that school is closed, tests postponed and sports teams shuttered.

Butte High senior Cody Carriger, a defensive end on the football team, represented eight Bulldog teammates at the meeting and asked the trustees to do everything in their power so that the team could take the field Friday for their scheduled game against Missoula Hellgate.

"I'm begging you," he said. "Please let us play."

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