New teacher contract creates controversy in Hill City Schools

By Gray Hughes

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A new teacher contract approved at the last Hill City Board of Education meeting has left some teachers feeling as if the board did not negotiate in good faith.

One of the biggest issues of the contract is the “sheer enormity” of it, said Chad Ronish, a science teacher at Hill City High School and one of the negotiators of the contract.

“This year again has a change in insurance but also included over 45 language changes like removal of the health insurance committee which saved the district $60,000 last year in premium increases,” Ronish said. “A complete overhaul of all pay and benefits including a limit to compensation for continued education for teachers, removal of the salary schedule, removing the right of representation for employees, and removal of sick leave bank and leave of absence provisions.  There are also increased penalties and punishment for staff breaking contracts even in the case of health or family emergencies.”

When negotiations first  started, the board brought a packet with 45 changes to the negotiation, and Ronish said the board is used to two or three.

The board, too, didn’t come to negotiations, he added, and instead they brought a lawyer from the Associated School Boards of South Dakota.

The packet they brought is the one brought to all he goes to, Ronish said, and the lawyer has a set package he tries to implement, and that is the package he brought to the teachers.

The school board never came to an agreement with the teachers, he added, and, because of non-binding arbitration, the school board passed the contract without the teachers’ approval.

This is the third year in a row that the school board has imposed a contract without coming to an agreement with the teachers, Ronish said.

Two years ago, he said, they did not agree on insurance because the premiums kept going up, but the district did not increase its  contributions.

“The district offered a pay increase as well that offset most of the insurance increase,” Ronish said.  “The next year the district again imposed the contract without agreement, again over insurance premium increases without an increase in district contributions. The district again offered a pay increase to offset some of the insurance increase. For families and staff, this was the second year of no tangible pay raise.”

During that period, Hill City schools have gone from 16th to 110th in terms of teacher pay in South Dakota, he added.

The negotiations began in January of this year, said Owen Wiederhold, president of the Hill City Board of Education, and they acted to do what they saw was in the best interest to protect the board and the school district.

Both sides were present during the initial talks, he said.

“There were several meetings where those packages were talked about, he said. “We were unable to come to an agreement on several of those issues. We went to impasse in May. A representative from the Department of Education in Pierre came out in August and talked with both sides, with the same result.”

At that point, they went to a fact-finding meeting in Pierre in September.

The meeting was with a judge who talked with both sides and made a ruling in October, Wiederhold said.

“The negotiations process is ongoing every year,” he said. “It is the board’s responsibility to be good servants with those funds that we receive. We must also be as fair as we can with our teaching staff.”

However, Ronish feels as if the contract is not fair to teachers and their families.

The insurance packages imposed do not save the district money, he said, and “cripples” families relying on the district’s health insurance.

“Our plan would have saved them $70,000,” Ronish said. “But they weren’t interested.”

The answer Ronish said the negotiating team kept getting was that the board was doing what they need to do to protect themselves.

That shouldn’t be the purpose of the board, Ronish said.

“I thought it was to ensure the kids in Hill City were getting the best education possible,” he said. “This doesn’t do that, and it is very discouraging.”

The Hill City Education Association will not challenge the board further on this, Ronish said, but will contest issues that come up on a case-by-case basis.

Wiederhold, though, said he believes the teachers are still in a good situation to serve and education their students.

“I feel that our teachers our top notch which is a direct result of how well our students do,” he said.

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