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Elementary school will go an extra week this year, School District 2's Board of Trustees decided Monday night in order to make the last pending strike-related lawsuits go away.

By a 5-4 vote, trustees essentially agreed to a settlement proposal offered by attorneys representing plaintiffs in two strike-related lawsuits. But the days will be voluntary under the agreement, and children who don't attend will not be penalized.

As trustees discussed why they intended to vote for or against the offer, it became apparent that eight trustees would split their vote evenly 4-4. It was left to newly elected Board Chairwoman Katharin Kelker to cast the deciding vote.

Kelker, who acknowledged this was probably one of the toughest votes trustees would make, voted for the motion. She also said no matter the result, a segment of people affected by the outcome would not be happy.

"We are weighing issues that are tough to weigh," Kelker said before she voted in favor of the motion.

Other trustees voting in favor of the motion were Peter Gesuale, Karen Moses, Debbie Richert and Conrad Stroebe. Trustees who voted against it were Nilo Cabrera, Mike Dimich, Judith Herzog and Gene Jarussi.

Under the proposal, as put forth by attorneys Ingrid Gustafson and Martha Sheehy, the district will extend the elementary school year five days; pay plaintiffs' fees and costs for two strike-related lawsuits and delete absences for students who didn't attend school Nov. 6-26 or don't attend June 9-13.

In exchange, the plaintiffs will drop the one outstanding lawsuit set for trial in June and file a satisfaction of judgment in the lawsuit filed by parents Judy Williams and Steve Lehman. The Billings Education Association, the plaintiffs in one of the two suits, will seek dismissal of all pending unfair labor practice complaints related to last year's strike and contract negotiations.

The actual motion directed Larry Martin, the district's attorney, to finalize an agreement based on the seven criteria in the proposed settlement. The estimated cost of the five days, for salaries and additional expenses, is $767,459, according to Business Manager Deborah Long.

During the discussion over the proposed settlement, Cabrera outlined a substitute idea that he could accept. Cabrera suggested voluntary summer school for all elementary students, staffed by a ratio of one teacher per 10 students that would provide remedial help and enrichment opportunities.

"This type of summer school program is a good opportunity for kids either to catch up or get farther ahead for next year," Cabrera said.

Dimich read a page of questions he said he wanted answered before he could vote for the proposal. Questions ranged from the exact cost of the proposal to potential suits against the district for the extension of the year.

Dimich also suggested sending a survey to parents to find out exactly how many children would attend the additional five days.

Moses said trustees had had months to get all of their questions answered and look at other possible proposals. Instead, the district stalled the process, she said.

"Our choices are limited and time-sensitive," Moses said.

Richert said she had been deluged with e-mails — "many have been very strident" — asking her not to vote for the proposal. Richert said the recent District Court ruling against the district in a lawsuit filed by two parents made it clear their constitutional rights had been violated.

That was one reason to settle, Richert said, but not the only one.

"I am very, very concerned that we get closure in these strike-related issues during this school year," Richert said. "Ms. Williams said she would accept five days and I want to give them to her."

She said it's time to "offer an education opportunity to move forward and it's time to move forward."

Williams, who spoke to the board, said to the question of how many students will go those days, that with real education happening in the classrooms that week, many students will want to attend.

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