House committee hears additional ed reform proposals

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Karen Echevarria, director of the Idaho State School Boards Association, testifies in the House Education Committee.

Gov. Butch Otter has declared that he’s not looking for “major school improvement measures” in this year’s legislative session. Additionally, his 31-member education reform advisory group has just recently begun to meet, and has yet to reach consensus on any ideas.

But education reform policies are advancing, nonetheless, in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

“Our membership voted by a margin of 3 to 1 to bring these proposals forward,” noted Karen Echeverria, director of the Idaho State School Boards Association. Having presented four education reform measures to the Senate Education Committee Monday, on Tuesday Echeverria spoke to the House Education Committee with three additional legislative proposals involving teacher employment and teacher union negotiations.

One of Echeverria’s proposals would change the timing of when an individual teacher must return a signed employment contract for the upcoming school year, moving the date from May 15 to July 1. “This allows teachers more time to consider their options, but also provides school districts with plenty of time to assess their staffing and budgetary needs for the forthcoming school year,” Echeverria told the committee.

Another of the proposals would change the way school districts can make staffing reductions. “Frequently it is the case that seniority of employees is the first, sometimes the only, criteria considered when difficult decisions about staffing reductions must be made,” Echeverria said. “We want other types of criteria to be considered, first, before seniority is considered.”

Following the committee hearing, Echeverria told IdahoReporter.com that “The Idaho Education Association (the state’s largest teachers’ union) recently published a position paper calling for this type of change in criteria. We’ve emulated their ideas on criteria with our proposal.”

The third and perhaps most controversial proposal heard in the committee hearing concerns open negotiations of master teacher contracts, and the ability of school district boards to impose a “last, best offer” scenario. “We want union negotiations to be done openly, but we want them to actually have an end date, too,” Echeverria testified.

While most master contracts for teachers end on June 30, she explained, negotiations can frequently drag on into the following fiscal year, creating havoc with school district budgets. If it becomes law, the new proposal would allow local school boards to impose the “last, best offer” on June 10 of each year.

“I guess it bothers me that this particular issue was on the ballot last November, and voters spoke about it, and now here it is again,” said Rep. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise. A law similar to Echeverria’s proposal regarding teachers’ union negotiations was repealed by voters in the last election. “It seems to me that when you’re negotiating and one side can force the last, best offer, the other side is at a disadvantage, and I’m wondering, what interest do school districts have in negotiating fairly, if their position ultimately always wins?” wondered Ward-Engelking.

“Both school districts and teachers’ unions have to negotiate in good faith,” Echeverria replied.  “And ultimately, under the reform that we seek, the decisions on these negotiations will be made by locally elected school board members, elected officials who are ultimately responsible to voters.”

Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, noted that he, too, has reservations about considering legislation on issues that were rejected by voters recently. Nonetheless he agreed that Echeverria’s proposal was a good one, and voted in committee to support it.

All three of the proposed reforms passed in committee and will now be assigned bill numbers and will be considered in more detail at subsequent hearings. Two of them passed unanimously. The one regarding “last, best offer” contract impositions split the committee members along party lines, with the three Democrat committee members (Ward-Engelking, Hy Kloc D-Boise, and Donna Pence, D-Gooding) all voting “no.”

“It’s a good thing that we’re having very specific discussions on these important issues,” Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, chairman of the committee, commented to IdahoReporter.com after the hearing. “There is a grassroots effort by school boards throughout our state to better manage their school districts. They’re telling us that in order to manage our taxpayer dollars more effectively and efficiently, they need us to make some changes.”

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