Monday is the last day that school districts and teachers can discuss contracts. Many districts have come down to the wire. In the state’s largest district some say new restrictions on bargaining have hindered the process.
Elementary teacher Chris Hiroto came to watch the final negotiation between the school district and the Meridian Education Association late Friday. He’s helped negotiate these contracts in the past, and he says this year the talks have been difficult. Hiroto blames the Students Come First laws.
“Now pretty much you can only discuss salary, benefits. That’s according to the law," he says.
Before Students Come First everything from class size to playground duty was on the table. Now it’s just salary and benefits. And not everyone agrees on what should be included in that. That’s why Meridian district spokesman Eric Exline says they hired a lawyer instead of having a district administrator negotiate as usual.
“Because of the need to make sure that you’re only negotiating for things that are negotiable." He adds. "which is salaries and benefits, and the benefits is fairly defined.”
The lawyer’s presence is a sore spot for the teachers’ union says Meridian Education Association president Luke Franklin.
“For us it’s much more comfortable as a group of educators going into a bargaining session with someone that understands where we’re coming from.”
Franklin says the legal deadline put a lot of pressure on negotiators too. That, he says, favored the district. That’s more evident in Nampa, where negotiations concluded without an agreement. Now the district’s last best offer automatically becomes the new contract. In Meridian teachers ended up with a contract they like. It returns nine days to the school year that were cut to save money.
Meridian spokesman Exline says he doesn’t know if the difficulties created by the new laws will last.
“I think I’d have to see it play out over time," he says. "I’ve seen negotiations happen this way one time, cause it’s kind of new. It is new.”
Not all the new bargaining provisions have hindered negotiations. Take holding these meetings in the open. That was criticized when legislators considered the laws in 2011. In Meridian, teachers now say they like having their colleagues in the audience to provide moral support. And the district says transparency makes the process fairer to everyone.