Right down to the sign-up deadline on Wednesday of last week, school districts qualified for Schools of Promise wrestled with a key requirement — reaching an agreement on terms with their labor unions.
Of the five districts that qualified in the state’s lowest tier of schools, four have signed or will sign a memorandum of understanding that could mean millions of dollars in assistance for the next three years — Pryor elementary, middle and high schools; Lodge Grass High School; Lame Deer High School; and Frazer High School.
Failure to reach a memorandum of understanding with its teachers’ union scuttled plans by the lowest of the low-performing schools, Hays-Lodge Pole High School, to participate.
The project had the support of the school trustees, but it appears that members of the Little Rocky Mountain Education Association, which represents the teachers, were never on board. They voted down a proposed memorandum of understanding twice before presenting a counter-proposal just before the signing deadline.
Mike Dahlem, a Whitefish attorney who represents the Hays-Lodge Pole District in labor negotiations, said terms proposed by the teachers were rejected by the school board as too costly and burdensome. The proposals included provisions that Schools of Promise money be spent at both the elementary and high schools, even though the grant covers only the high school, he said. The teachers also wanted the district to cover the entire cost of their health, vision and dental insurance for the next three years, which Dahlem said would add up to tens of thousands of dollars not covered by the grant. Finally, they wanted a guarantee that the rent on school housing for teachers would not go up during that time.
In a letter May 25, union President Dan Hansen said the union rejected the memorandum for a number of reasons, including that the union and district had not been given enough time to negotiate. The union complained that the memorandum of understanding conflicted with the existing collective bargaining agreement.
Hansen also said that OPI doesn’t have the money in hand and that the union does not believe funding exists.
“Hope does not fund initiatives,” he wrote.
OPI, however, is confident that its grant application will be successful. If the federal grant is approved as written, OPI will have a budget of $11.4 million for the project. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau said that OPI and the four remaining districts will start the process of determining what they will need to meet their goals. If those needs are all covered and funds are left over, opportunities may arise for other low-performing schools that are not in the bottom 5 percent of the state’s schools.
Dropping from the program was a devastating blow to Hays-Lodge Pole Trustee Dawn Bishop-Moore, who had already invested countless hours and all her hopes on the district joining the partnership with OPI.
“I’m so disappointed — all the time and effort that went into it,” she said. “It was such an opportunity.”
Bishop-Moore has a personal decision to make now, too. Her daughter will be a freshman next year. During the next few weeks she will have to decide whether to enroll her at Hays-Lodge Pole High School or send her to Harlem High School, which has a record of better academic achievement.
“It’s a tough choice,” she said.
But she notes that some employees of the school district have always sent their children elsewhere to school. Dozens of students who could enroll at Hays-Lodge Pole attend schools in Harlem and other nearby districts.
OPI will continue to help Hays-Lodge Pole where it can, Juneau said.
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Hays-Lodge Pole isn’t the only district that struggled with the requirement for teacher agreements.
OPI required that each district have a memorandum of understanding in place before signing a School Improvement Grant (SIG) implementation agreement with OPI.
Dahlem, however, maintained that there is nothing in federal law that requires a memorandum of agreement as a condition for a grant. He also contends that a model memorandum of understanding circulated at a meeting in Billings a month ago would leave school districts helpless to get rid of bad teachers.
“Technically, school boards would no longer have any authority,” he said. “It’s just shocking.”
Juneau counters that for School of Promise to work all parties must be on board, including teachers. OPI is not usurping local control, she said. It is working in partnership with the districts.
But Dahlem and negotiator Rick D’Hooge, who represents Hays-Lodge Pole and Lodge Grass, say they have serious problems with they way OPI has handled the issue. They maintain that requiring the union memorandum before a district can be accepted as a School of Promise usurps the collective bargaining process.
Juneau said that the required memorandums of understanding do not displace existing collective bargaining agreements. They are meant only to deal with issues that fall within the parameters of the SIG grant, such as required training and compensation for extra time spent in the classroom.
Dahlem and D’Hooge also complain that OPI did not provided them with drafts of proposed SIG agreements or proposed memorandums of understanding in a timely manner, leaving them with only a few weeks to review the documents and negotiate with the unions.
The attorney said that before the deadline, Frazer was able to modify its proposed memorandum of understanding into a more acceptable form, but that the other districts may have been rushed into agreements that will tie their hands for the next three years.
Dahlem said he first saw a copy of the draft memorandum proposed by MEA-MFT when one was unofficially slipped to him after an April 29-May 1 meeting in Billings. The memorandum was distributed to union members at that time, but was not provided to personal representing the districts, D’Hooge said.
The template memorandum puts so many restrictions and unreasonable deadlines into the process of getting rid of bad teachers that it would be all but impossible to fire them, he said. Allowing bad teachers to remain on staff undercuts efforts to improve student achievement, D’Hooge said.
The template also proposed that any derogatory material placed in a teacher’s file must be removed after one year.
“If adopted, a school district that has enacted a progressive discipline policy may be precluded from imposing anything more than a verbal reprimand because the record of prior misconduct has been removed from the teacher’s file,” he said.
Juneau said the memorandum circulated at the Billings meeting was only a model. Districts were free to negotiate and design their own memorandums of understanding, she said.
Both D’Hooge and Dahlem said that as things stand, trustees in the program will be ceding too much of their authority to OPI.