BILLINGS — The beginning of October finally brought good news for Billings teachers. After a months-long negotiation that bled six weeks into this new school year, the Billings Education Association and School District 2 ratified a new contract with a 98% teacher approval Friday.
The key term? It is three years long.
“It really gives a sense of security and stability to the staff," said BEA president Doug Robison.
“It’s going to make everybody feel better about the district for three years," echoed longtime Billings Senior math teacher Doug Brakke, "and I think we’re going to grow closer not further apart.”
That’s where they were last spring, when the union wanted to have this year’s agreement done. But SD2 Superintendent Greg Upham figured this round would take a while.
“I anticipated that this session of negotiations was going to be longer because we were tackling some pretty hard topics, that being the severance package and the service credit," Upham said Friday.
Those were without a doubt the biggest issues. The district wanted to drastically change the end-of-career benefits SD2 teachers have been told for decades to expect, because of high long-range costs. In the end, the district agreed to continue to pay out all earned discretionary days, and the union agreed to a $460/day service credit salary cap that both sides think will slow down future projections.
“There were changes that needed to be made," Robison admitted, "and both us and the district agreed on some minor changes that are not of a great magnitude. I think it worked well for the teachers.”
“I think both sides compromised quite a bit," Brakke added. "Was it a fair compromise? I think so. I think if you look at it, it’s really a win for both sides.”
The contract includes a one-time essential worker bonus similar to what teachers received last year during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also includes salary raises that continue to make Billings competitive compared to other AA districts. But the severance package has long been SD2’s greatest recruiting tool, a job that’s getting harder and harder every year.
“The number of (full-time employees) that we have and the number we need that we don’t have is probably our greatest challenge in assisting students with their learning," Upham said.
The union thinks the contract will help.
“I’ve always felt that Billings Public Schools has a great staff," Robison, who taught for 30 years in Billings before becoming BEA president, said. "It’s one of the best places to live. It’s one of the best places to get you kids educated, and I do think this is a package that will attract younger staff into our district.”
That's essential to ensuring its viability for generations to come.