Changes to decades-long benefits package remain roadblock for Billings teachers' contract

Union, district met for six hours Tuesday
teacher stress
Posted at 5:17 PM, Aug 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-31 23:42:27-04

BILLINGS — It was the Billings Education Association's goal to have a new contract for School District 2 teachers in place for this year by the end of last year.

That didn’t happen. It also didn’t happen this summer. It's now seven days into a new school year and the major holdup is a decades-long promise teachers are counting on to be kept.

“Every year you sign a contract that you feel is going to be promised to you at the conclusion of your career," said BEA President Doug Robison. "The school district and school board want to make significant changes to that package that would be a dramatic change.”

The district's benefits and severance package is well known as a great recruiting tool across Montana. Teachers are given a certain number of discretionary days each year. Those that are unused are rolled over, and a teacher is paid out for them when they leave the district or retire. At the beginning of negotiations, the district proposed eliminating those benefits, even for those who had been saving for their entire careers.

“It is something that they plan their lives around," said BEA Vice President Lance Edward, who has been teaching at Billings West for 20 years. "So when you agree to something year after year after year - sometimes for decades - it’s disconcerting to have them talking about not fulfilling their end of the bargain you’ve made with them.”

Edward, who is on the union negotiating team, says the district has softened in their initial stance of wanting to eliminate the package. Robison says the administration’s goal in meetings is to solve a years-long, multi-million dollar deficit.

“They would like to slow the projection of costs, and we have made what we feel are steps in terms of slowing those costs down," Robison said.

“No teacher wants this district to go bankrupt. No teacher wants this district to be financially strapped," Edward added. "We want it to be sustainable long term into the future.”

Thank you teachers
A sign thanking teachers for their work through the COVID-19 pandemic is displayed on the grounds of a School District 2 building.

One idea being throw around: honor the commitments made in previous contracts but negotiate a more cost-friendly package moving forward. But Edward says that would create a rift within their own ranks.

“All teachers have to be under the same system or the union doesn’t work very well. So a different benefits package for different teachers quickly divides staff.”

Both Edward and Robison believe a deal is close. Halfway through Tuesday's six-hour meeting, Robison told Q2 there were just two issues to go, but they were big issues. He didn't offer details on what they were. After the longest 18 months of their professional lives, teachers continue to grow wearier every day.

“The workload and the expectations have just been overwhelming," Robison said, "and I do feel that the morale of teachers, especially at the end of last year, was dismal.”

“There’s no question, it’s a very difficult thing to think about starting the year without a new contract," Edward said. "Teachers feel like their voices aren’t being listened to. (That's) the biggest frustration.”

Robison and Upham released a joint statement after Tuesday's meeting, saying they are "working together to solve issues and are making progress." They have not scheduled a next meeting date yet.