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LEA, district begin talking new contract

| March 23, 2006 11:00 PM

By GWEN ALBERS Western News Reporter

Libby teachers have asked for a 10 percent pay-raise for 2006-2007. The district has not rejected the union's proposal despite offering 5 percent.

"Our teachers want to be above the average," Superintendent Kirby Maki told the school board during a Tuesday meeting. "For me, as superintendent, I would like to get them there. I don't blame them for that."

"We want to attract young people and we want to get that base (pay) up, but how do we do that and pay for it?" Maki said.

Negotiations for a proposed one-year contract for the 107 teachers will continue Tuesday, March 28, at 7 p.m. in the Central Administration Building. The meeting is open to the public.

The current one-year contract, which included a 5 percent pay raise for 2005-2006, expires June 30.

Libby teachers since 1998-99 have received average annual raises of 4 percent, said Tim Hodel, negotiating chairman for Libby Education Association.

"Ten percent does sound astronomical, but we've taken some zeros along the way," said Hodel, a middle school health and gym teacher.

The base pay for this year is $23,534. For the new contract, the district has proposed increasing it to $24,711; the union has asked for $25,940.

Libby teachers for 2001-2002 made $104 less than the average teacher from 24 districts similar in size in Montana, including Whitefish, Columbia Falls, Bozeman and Billings, according to information provided by the union. Teachers for this year are paid $618 less than that average.

Under the district's proposal, teachers would get $534 less a year than the average; the union's proposal gives them $695 above the average.

"We're actually losing ground even though we average 4 percent increases over the years," Hodel said.

In addition, Libby currently ranks 16th out of the 24 school districts for its pay; the union's proposal would improve the ranking to ninth while the district's offer would put Libby in 15th. In 18 communities the size of Libby, the teaching salaries for the district rank 16th. In the state, Libby ranks 48th in pay out of 173 districts.

"We feel that not only do we have above average teachers in Libby, but outstanding dedicated professionals who certainly deserve the same pay," Hodel said.

A 5 percent pay increase would cost the district, which has 1,371 students, an additional $340,000, Maki said.

"Through attrition we could solve the dilemma, but we don't want to hurt the student-teacher ratio and we don't want to cut student programs," he said. "We'll have to squeeze to come up with the money."

"We don't want to change the student-teacher ratio or cut extra activities for kids," added school board member Jerry Frament. "I think they're very important and can be as important as academics."

Also under the district's proposal, teachers could get a 7.56 percent raise through step increases and a larger contribution for expected increased health insurance premiums.

"We didn't give a specific amount because we don't know what it will be," Maki said.

The union proposed the district increase its contribution for health insurance by $50 a month.

Currently a teacher pays $43 a month or $516 a year for insurance on an individual plan; $94 a month or $1,128 for a husband and wife; and $126 a month or $1,512 for a family plan. The deductible is $2,000 and a 50 percent co-pay is required on medical bills for up to $3,000 for an individual and $6,000 for a family.

District negotiators include Maki and school board members Teri Kelly and Jerry Frament.