By Tim Leeds
The negotiator for the Havre Education Association said today that negotiations with the school district for a teachers' contract are moving forward, but the two sides disagree about the length of the new contract.
The teachers want a one-year contract but the district wants one that covers the next three years, negotiator Scott Filius said.
"Right now I'd say the negotiations are moving along," he said. "So far, I don't think there's any controversy or people not working to come to some conclusion of the bargaining."
The HEA bargaining team met with the school district's team for collective-bargaining negotiations Tuesday. A three-year contract negotiated earlier through interest-based bargaining and approved by the Havre School Board was rejected by the HEA in April.
Filius said the current negotiations are addressing many of the same issues the interest-based bargaining did. He said both sides are bringing many issues to the table.
"We're bringing (those issues) closer to center all the time," he said.
Ric Floren, director of operations for the Havre Public Schools, has been representing the district along with Karla Wohlwend. The district hired Rick D'Hooge to negotiate for the district in the current round of bargaining. Floren said the negotiations have been very productive and his team is looking forward to continuing the process.
"There is a fair and cordial atmosphere," he said. "There is a long way to go to resolving all those differences, but we hope to have it resolved before school begins."
Floren declined to comment on any particulars in the negotiations. He said if the two teams desired to make public comment they could prepare a joint statement.
Filius said two major concerns the union had with the previous contract offer were the cost of health insurance and the length of the contract. He said that at the time the previous offer was negotiated, predictions were that insurance premiums would increase about 15 percent. But the insurance company covering the district later said that the premiums would increase 32 percent.
Filius said the biggest stumbling block on the contract was its three-year term.
"I think that was probably the biggest no-vote on the contract," he said.
Filius said he thinks many people in the union believe the financial situation for the school district may improve within three years. He said the offer negotiated earlier was fiscally conservative, and the union members don't want to lock themselves in if the situation does improve. He said the school district has made it clear that it wants a longer-term contract.
Filius conceded that the union's desire for a short-term contract might be a poor choice. If the economic situation for the district worsens, teachers could be forced to accept less in a new contract three years from now than what was offered.
Filius said teachers also think the raise in the previous offer was not enough to keep up with inflation. He said the 4 percent, 3 percent and 3 percent "whole pot" raises over the next three years that the contract offered translated into 2 percent, 1 percent and 1 percent increases in pay, a yearly average of about 1.33 percent.
The raises would be divided among the teachers according to experience and education.
Filius said the starting wage for a teacher under the current contract is $21,547; the top, for a teacher with a master's degree plus 10 additional credits and about 20 years of experience is about $43,000.
Filius said he hasn't really thought about what the next step would be if negotiations break down, although moving to mediated negotiations would probably be next.
He said with the progress that is being made, mediation is probably not something anyone is thinking about now.
He said since progress is being made, he doesn't think there will be any problem with classes starting as scheduled.
He said the negotiations are going to take some more time.
"It's frustrating for me," he said. "I'd like to sit down in a two-hour session and get things done, but that's just not how this thing is done. We have to let the process take its own pace."