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Idaho House to debate 3 new teacher union bills

Rebecca Boone, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- The Idaho House Education Committee has agreed to debate bills that would give school boards more power when negotiating with teacher unions, even though similar laws were already struck down by voters last November.

Three Democrats on the committee voted against one of the bills presented by Idaho School Boards Association Director Karen Echeverria, but 12 Republicans voted in favor of the legislation, which allows school boards to unilaterally impose contract terms on the teacher's union if negotiations fail.

No one on the committee voted against the other two bills brought by the ISBA. One gives school boards more flexibility for layoffs and the other puts a time limit on how long employees have to sign their contracts each year and allows them to be sent out via email to save money on postage.

Echeverria told the lawmakers that school boards across the state voted in favor of presenting the legislation by a three-to-one margin. She said the bills would give school boards the tools to give patrons the "good fiscal management" that they expect.

Rep. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, said she was concerned that the draft legislation allowing school boards to impose their last, best contract offer on unions mirrored a bill soundly struck down by voters last year. Draft legislation is often called an RS, short for its "routing slip" number, until it is formally printed and turned into a bill by a committee.

"It bothers me that this particular bill or RS was basically on the ballot and our constituents, voters, spoke about this," she said.

Ward-Engelking said she didn't have any problem with the bill's wording that would make all contract negotiations public, but said she did fear other portions of the bill would give too much power to school boards during contract negotations. The bill would allow the boards to put into place their last, best contract offer if good faith contract negotiations fail.

"It seems to me that when you're negotiating and one side can enforce the last best offer at a given point, it kind of puts all the marbles on that person's side," Ward-Engelking said.

Echeverria countered that the bill requires both sides to make an effort to reach an agreement first.

"Both parties have to negotiate in good faith, and good faith is defined," Echeverria said. "... These are locally elected officials, and it is their statutory responsibility to manage the district and that includes the finances of that district. So it ultimately rests on their shoulders to make that decision, if no agreement can be reached."

Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, was the only Republican on the committee to voice misgivings about printing a bill that was essentially just turned down by voters.

But he said it was difficult to tell just what parts of the law voters were opposed to, and he said lawmakers should strive to "pick out the good parts" this time around.

No lawmakers brought up any concerns about another ISBA bill, which would allow the school boards to consider other factors before seniority when deciding which teachers to let go during layoffs.

"In the past, seniority was the only criteria that could be used," during a reduction in force, Echeverria said. "... If the candidates are equal, then the seniority can be used."

Another batch of ISBA bills was introduced by the Senate Education Committee on Monday, including one that allows school boards to lower teacher salaries from year to year, one that requires teacher unions to show they have support from a majority of its members to enter contract negotiations, and one that sets limits and criteria for any job-related appeals made by a teacher in the state courts.

Voters rejected three education overhaul propositions last year: One would have limited teacher collective bargaining rights to salaries and benefits, another would have created a plan to pay teachers bonuses based on merit and student test scores, and the last would have provided every high school student with a laptop and required them to take a certain number of classes online.

All three were defeated by more than 57 percent of the vote.