BILLINGS — In Doug Brakke's mind, it was a simple request.
“They had the opportunities to make us feel valued without any monetary risks involved," the Billings Senior math teacher said. "So I guess my question is, why don't you do that?”
When House Bill 251 was introduced into the state Legislature on Jan. 26, the Montana Federation of Public Employees went to work. The state’s largest union - mainly comprised of teachers - knew the sweeping Right-to-Work bill could drastically diminish their bargaining power if passed.
“Right-to-Work laws are designed to eventually disintegrate a union," said Billings Education Association President Doug Robison.
So the teachers union began asking the state’s largest districts to rollover their current contracts for the next several years as a protection and show of good faith. Robison also asked for one more thing.
“Teachers in our contract are required to notify the district when they would like to retire, and that date is March 1st," Robison said. "And I simply asked (Superintendent Greg) Upham to extend that notification date until we as teachers feel a little bit more secure about what's going to happen in Helena. Those are the two things that I've requested. Neither one of them would cost any money at this point. It creates a simple sense of security for all the teachers.”
“No," Robison said. "I've met with him several times. I read a statement to the board at the last board meeting, and I've been met with a negative response to both questions.”
When asked why he wouldn’t commit to the proposal, Upham pointed to School District 2’s current budget concerns.
“The level of deficit we have in our elementary budget, my concern is unintended consequences of not being able to completely negotiate in a full-blown manor," Upham said. "We have to have all the tools in the toolbox available to address this issue.”
Last year, SD2 cut $4 million from its operating budget to address the shortfall, mostly through eliminating almost 40 full-time-equivalent positions. But after losing almost 400 students to homeschooling because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Upham estimates a minimum $2 million deficit once again next year.
“That’s without any negotiated amounts on salary adjustments," he added. "That’s yet to come, and you’re talking large, large dollars when you’re talking about increasing compensation.”
But teachers say this wasn’t about wanting more money. It was about sticking to a contract both sides have already agreed to. And that’s led to the potentially bigger problem - a growing level of distrust, especially after enduring one of the toughest school year’s ever.
“Everyone felt that going back five days a week and getting the kids back in the classroom would be the best course of action to take," Robison said. "However, at the beginning of the year, we were met with things like no contract, an immediate change in schedule.”
“And staff have really stepped up, overcome a lot of challenges and went above and beyond and did an awesome job. So in turn we are just asking for something in return so we feel valued and maybe appreciated for what we've done," Brakke, a 28-year SD2 employee, added. "So when the superintendent said, 'No, we're not going to do that,' boy that made us feel like, okay, we're not appreciated, we’re not valued, and that hurts.”
Upham says he is empathetic to the teachers’ concerns, but again pointed to the bottom line.
“The courage that it took for our people to do the work they’ve been doing, of being able to stay in school - it’s a difficult response, and surely not intended to be disrespectful," he said. "But I’m just trying to do the best that I can moving forward to make sure the district is in the best spot for years to come.”
Based on recent history, teachers worry that spot won’t include all of them.
“I hope our district can overcome the financial problems that we're in, but I would hope that they would put the money into educators," Brakke said, "because if you put the money into teachers and education, in turn, that helps and benefits the students. And that's really what we're here for.“
The current SD2 teachers contract expires on June 30. The two sides will meet again this summer to work on a new deal, with another uncertain year ahead.