A negotiation meeting Tuesday, May 11, between the newly formed Williston Basin School District No. 007 and teachers highlighted that the merger election was just the first step.

In December, voters OK’d merging Williston Public School District No. 1 and Williams County School District No. 8.

One essential job for the new district is hiring teachers and that means negotiating with the Williston Education Association, the union that represents local teachers.

One of the challenges is hammering out a contract that combines the salary levels of the two districts into one system that’s fair. A new teacher with a bachelor’s degree makes a starting salary of $42,000 at District 1 and $47,250.

Tuesday’s meeting focused on a number of smaller issues, as well as the main and most contentious issue, developing a new salary schedule. In both districts, teachers are paid based on both their experience and their education. There are salary steps within the experience category and various rows or lanes representing more education.

The first proposal from WEA was to have all new teachers start at $47,250, the base in District 8. Because of the differences between pay scales, some teachers would get relatively large raises.

Matt Lebel, a WEA negotiator, explained that was to make the pay scale fair — it wouldn’t be right for two teachers with the same level of experience and education to make different amounts of money.

The plan would add about $3 million to the district budget.

Christ Jundt, board president for District 7, pointed out that more than 250 teachers would get a raise of at least $5,000, while more than 50 would see their salaries increase by at least $10,000. He asked whether that increase was a responsible use of tax money and whether it was sustainable.

Jundt pointed out that District 1 budgeted a $4.6 million deficit this year.

Lebel argued financial equality was key.

“Our biggest thing is equity,” he said. “To get all teachers on one salary schedule.”

Jundt, however, still questioned whether taxpayers would support such increases.

“The taxpayers voted to approve this merger,” Lebel pointed out.

Still, Jundt questioned whether that meant they would be OK with increases like the teachers were proposing.

“You think the taxpayers support $10,000, $12,000, $14,000 raises?” Jundt asked.

He pointed out that District 8 transferred nearly $20 million in taxable valuation to other districts, something that will cut revenue by about $1.2 million.

“It doesn’t work,” he said. “It just does not work. It’s not sustainable and responsible.”

The District 7 board proposed a schedule where new teachers with a bachelor’s degree would start at $44,500. The most a teacher could make, with a master’s degree and 24 additional credits would be $84,900. That compares to a current maximum of $81,990 in District 1 and $84,450 in District 8.

Lebel, however, pointed out that there were discrepancies that meant teachers with the same amount of education and experience could make vastly different amounts of money. One instance Lebel cited was a difference of $4,500 annually.

“I get your point, I truly do,” Jundt said.

However, he said, the board wasn’t able to come up with a salary schedule that put everyone on the same level while making sure no one made less money than they had the year before.

After a short discussion, WEA offered a counter proposal, one that trimmed more than $1 million off its original offer. The new scheduled offers 11 lanes from bachelor’s degree to Ph.D. The base salary for a new teacher with no experience would be $46,300.

“Where did I come up with $46,300?” Lebel asked. “That’s the bottom line. I can’t go lower and get everybody more money — $46,300 is the number where everybody comes in on the same spot, the same lane of experience and then years of experience that everybody’s equal, all teachers on this salary schedule is the same experience same education keep same dollar amount. I can’t go less than $46,300. This is the cheapest, cheapest one that we can come up with.”

The total cost increase would be about $1.6 million, but counting in costs that would be spent at both districts anyway, worked out closer to $1.1 million, Lebel said.

In addition to salaries, both sides spoke about insurance, trying to decide whether Blue Cross Blue Shield or NDPERS would be a better choice.

One disagreement in the meeting shows a tension between the desire of the teachers to have a contract that lays out their rights clearly and the board’s interest in making policy.

In both districts, the negotiated agreement between the district and the teachers lays out procedures for how the district will eliminate positions if that becomes necessary. That was taken out of the District 7 negotiated agreement. Lebel said the removal didn’t make sense, and read quotes from members of the negotiation committee that indicated they wanted to work with teachers to include a Reduction in Force section in the agreement.

Jundt said the board’s decision was that policy should be made at the board level, but said teachers would be invited to participate in the process.

Lebel also questioned why the board wanted to leave out the grievance policy from the negotiated agreement. Under state law, teachers have the right to file grievances about working conditions.

If the board policy doesn’t address things properly, teachers will have to develop their own way of filing grievances about working conditions, Lebel suggested.

“We’re still wondering why that has to change,” Lebel said.

Jundt, however, wouldn’t budge.

“Our position at this point maintains this is a policy that should be handled by the board,” he said.

The negotiations committee next meets Tuesday, May 18.

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