Brian Ehli, head of the teachers union, ended Tuesday's marathon negotiating session with School District 2 on a positive note.
"As long as we keep meeting, teachers will keep teaching," said Ehli, president of the Billings Education Association, sitting in his office after the day was done.
The two sides plan to meet again in mediation on Tuesday, Nov. 5.
Until then, the district will be considering a counterproposal made Tuesday evening by the BEA. That offer included some concessions on insurance and sought a 3.5 percent raise, but also came with caveats.Strike feared With the district and the Billings Education Association seemingly far apart on bargaining issues, a growing number of people in the community feared a strike was imminent.
"We are still meeting and we are still negotiating, and I believe the association along with the district looks at that in a positive light," Ehli said. "We're setting dates to meet and I think that's for the good of all - that's a positive sign."
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Across the parking lot at Lincoln Center, Board Chairwoman Stevie Schmitz concurred.
"It was a long but productive day," Schmitz said. "We arrived at consensus on a lot of the numbers."
Numbers have been a sticking point between the district and the BEA as the two sides have worked toward settling a new contract. The district's 1,100 teachers have worked without a contract since July 1.
During a day that began at 9 a.m. and ended 12 hours later, the two sides shared information and the union gave the district a counterproposal to an offer the district made Sept. 24.
District and union negotiators met face to face in the morning and afternoon. At one point in the day, members of both sides met in district Business Manager Deborah Long's office for an impromptu discussion on budget numbers.
State mediator Paul Melvin sat in on the sessions, but he let the two sides do most of the talking.
Key players during the day included union negotiators Scott McCulloch and Steve Henry and Long. The trio painstakingly went through salary and insurance rosters, name by name, to reconcile numbers.
Peggy Parker, executive director of secondary education, and Kathy Olson, executive director of elementary education, also answered questions from McCulloch on teacher placement, teachers on leave and their substitutes.
By lunch the two sides had come close on teacher full-time equivalents and closer than they had been to agreeing what is being spent in salary dollars. The afternoon was spent discussing insurance.
The number of questions about specific BEA members in or out of the plan were narrowed down. But Henry, after a lengthy discussion on the insurance plan's fund reserve, still had major questions he felt weren't resolved.
"Those floating numbers, that's what I'm having trouble dealing with," said Henry, the BEA's lead negotiator. "I can never seem to get the same numbers. From the employees' viewpoint, they need to know exactly how much money is in there."
The two sides agreed to keep meeting to clear up questions about insurance.Budget info The district also supplied the BEA with budget information. Union officials have said they are especially interested in looking at areas in the budget where money allocated last year was not completely spent and comparing that to this year's budget figures.
At 6:10 p.m., Henry presented a counteroffer to the district that came with two caveats.
The union's latest proposal includes a 3.5 percent increase in base pay for teachers, plus "steps," money for years of experience, and "lanes," dollars teachers receive for extra earned education credits.
The concession from the union came on insurance. The BEA wants the district to fully fund employee premiums at the $500 deductible level, but agreed to impose a separate, annual $50 per person deductible for prescriptions drugs.
"We believe this is seminal movement," said Henry. "If all the members meet this, that would be a concession of $50,000."
The two caveats came next. Henry told district negotiators that the union did not recognize the district's "last, best and final" offer because it wasn't delivered at the bargaining table. Instead, it was hand-delivered Oct. 8 to the BEA office by Larry Martin, the district's chief negotiator.Bargaining position Henry also said the union's position on a proposal the district made on June 24 was regressive bargaining. That proposal, named in a union complaint to the Board of Personnel Appeals, sought $2 million in rollbacks in insurance benefits that the union said had not been presented at previous bargaining sessions.
By contrast, the district's "last, best and final" offer includes a 3 percent raise in base pay, lanes but no steps, and fully paid insurance premiums for employees at a newly created $2,000 deductible. The proposal also includes about $2 million in insurance benefit reductions.
That offer basically mirrored the one trustees discussed on Sept. 24, the second time the two sides met in mediation.
After the union presented its offer Tuesday night, the district asked for time to digest the proposal. The two sides broke for dinner and agreed to meet at 7:30 p.m.
Instead, Melvin spent 1-1/2 hours shuttling between the two sides and by 9 p.m., both sides had agreed to set another date for mediation. Afterward, Melvin said the BEA will continue working with the insurance and budget numbers.
"I encouraged the two sides to try to resolve as many of the numbers issues as possible before we meet again," he said. "So we'll know what our understandings are and where we go from here."Hashing out numbers Melvin called the time spent on hashing out numbers Tuesday appropriate.
"Today was a necessary day," he said. "It was important it happened, otherwise there would still be all those questions and doubts. There still will be some questions about insurance and unexpended budget authority."
Schmitz said that in addition to the proposal from the BEA, the district also received a counterproposal from the Montana Public Employees Association, the union that represents the district's custodians, warehouse workers and other trades.
The MPEA bargaining unit's contract also expired June 30 and that union had also requested mediation. Initially, the two sides had decided to wait until the BEA had settled, but the MPEA decided to move forward with the new proposal.
"For both the BEA and the MPEA, we'll have to meet with the board to review those offers and cost them out," Schmitz said. "At this point we're uncertain when that meeting with trustees will be, but it will be by mediation on Nov. 5."
Asked about the fact that trustees had set Tuesday at 5 p.m. as a deadline for its "last, best and final" offer, Schmitz said that offer is no longer under consideration.
"The BEA, as they provided their counteroffer, disavowed any acknowledgment of the 'last, best and final' offer," Schmitz said. "At this point it's off the table because it expired today."