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Saturday, March 24, 2018

GUSB, GEA reach tentative agreement

By Jamie Ausk Crisafulli

Ranger-Review Staff Writer

Twenty-one months into contract negotiations, the Glendive Unified School Board and the Glendive Education Association negotiating committees reached a tentative agreement Wednesday night. The proposed contract which covers the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years must now be approved by the full GEA membership and the school board.

With recent turnover in board members and a new superintendent at the helm, the change in direction the new GUSB’s negotiating team brought to the table was well received by the GEA bargaining committee. 

Montana Education Association East Office field consultant Maggie Copeland, who assisted the GEA in the bargaining process, said the change in leadership made all the difference in the process.

She said she and Superintendent Stephen Schreibeis were able to sit down and look at the “hard data” and talk about the issues openly.

“His ability to look at the facts and the data, and how he treats teachers” made all the difference, she said.

While there were a few items to be tweaked in the new agreement, the main issues holding up the contract were salary and insurance. 

“Our marching orders have been, from the beginning, ‘protect the health insurance,’” Copeland noted.

According to Copeland, the GEA had hard data showing GUSB’s teacher salary and insurance costs were declining because teachers with 30-40 years’ experience were retiring and were being replaced with less experienced teachers. 

Last spring, the elementary and high school districts reduced 5 1/2 teaching positions to balance school budgets. 

“That said, GUSB’s proposals never took into account the natural savings that was occurring. Their proposal wasn’t cutting fat, it was cutting bone and muscle,” Copeland said.

According to a statement from Copeland, GUSB’s June insurance proposal would have shifted $389,035 in premiums to 92 teachers—on average costing each teacher $4,288 per year . The GUSB’s proposal also included a $4,166 flat payment for each teacher. Copeland said this would have resulted in some GEA members experiencing increased earnings by $2,300 while others would have lost more than $1,700. She said overall teachers would have lost $39,000 in earnings in the first year alone.

“That simply was unfair - and we think GUSB’s new leadership team recognized that and acting on data and in good faith made an offer they could afford and that GEA could accept,” Copeland added. 

Per the tentative agreement, the district will continue to pay 100 percent of single premiums for those electing single coverage and will pay two times that amount for those electing family coverage. 

The district will continue to contract with its insurance carrier to offer $1,000/$2,000 deductible health insurance plan and two high deductible health plans.

The current contract does not include the $500 health savings account deposit for teachers electing a high deductible plan that was included in the previous contract.

The tentative agreement included no salary increase for the 2016-17 school year and a 1.5 percent increase for extracurriculars and on the base salary, retroactive to the beginning of the school’s fiscal year on July 1, for the 2017-18 school year.

While the two entities discussed adding the 2018-19 school year to the contract, making it a three-year contract, that was ultimately dropped. 

Both sides agreed that after the lengthy bargaining period going back to the table to work on a new contract in early 2018 was not ideal. However, school officials felt with so many questions about state funding, it would be difficult to budget that far in advance.

“I think it would be awesome if we did not have to negotiate for awhile. I think that would give our district a lot of time to kind of move forward,” Schreibeis said. “The down side of that is how do you make a plan and all of a sudden you go too much and we’re all hurting.”

The GEA and GUSB bargaining committees agreed to put contract talks for the 2018-19 school year off until March 2018. A change from the traditional contract negotiations to Interest Based Bargaining, a negotations strategy in which parties collaborate to find a solution, was also discussed.

The groups also agreed to form an insurance committee to look into options that would be beneficial to members while being cognizant of insurance coverage impacts on the school budget. The committee will be comprised of a cross section of teachers and staff members from each school in the district, retirees and administrators and board members. 

“There’s going to be a point that we are going to need numbers ... but there are other things we can do before that like figuring out who’s going to be on the committee, what information are we going to need to gather ...,” Schreibeis said. “Because it affects everyone, administrators, this is an everyone issue.”

Copeland said she expects the GEA membership to vote on the tentative agreement the week of Oct. 23 and expect there to be no problem finding support for the contract. 

“They’ll overwhelmingly ratify it,” she said.

Reach Jamie Ausk Crisafulli at rreditor@rangerreview.com.

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