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home : news : news Sunday, December 17, 2017

4/19/2017 Email this articlePrint this article 
No contract? No problem; school board learning law
Central DeWitt officials finding out how to deal with bargaining change

By Larry Lough
Executive editor

Despite the high-profile political fight over recent changes in the state's collective bargaining law for public employees, people might not see much difference.

That was the message Central DeWitt School Board members brought back from a workshop on the new law.

Although governing bodies will no longer be required to negotiate with public workers for any contract terms other than "base wages," that doesn't mean significant changes in pay and benefits.

And the board may still choose to negotiate with teachers on some items among the 19 that the law says it no longer has to.

Superintendent Dan Peterson and board members Christy Kunz and Angela Rheingans attended the statewide workshop in Altoona just hours before the board's monthly meeting on Thursday. About 350 school officials reportedly attended the conference sponsored by the Iowa Association of School Boards.

Local officials' takeaway from the session was that their teachers should not be concerned they will suffer from losing most of their bargaining rights - terms could be spelled out in a board-approved employee handbook or employment manual, even if they're not negotiated in a formal contract.

The board members said the message was that while the process will be different, the outcome doesn't have to be.

"We may be taking it out of the contract," Rheingans said, "but we're not taking it away from [employees]."

"We expect things will go forward as they always have," board President Kunz added.

Cedar Rapids lawyer Brett Nitzschke attended Thursday's board meeting to discuss the new law. After the public meeting, board members went into a private session with the attorney to talk about the board's strategy for working under the law.

Nitzschke said some things about the law still had to be clarified.

"I wish [the Legislature] would have defined what a 'base wage' is," he complained.

But he said he expected details soon from the Public Employment Relations Board that will allow boards to adapt to the law "with the least amount of disruption possible."

One noticeable change is that athletic coaches will have 1-year contracts that will require annual renewal - or be allowed to lapse.

The board will have to decide soon how it will proceed - what to negotiate with bargaining units, and what to decide on its own. Teachers and most other staff members are under a 1-year contract approved last summer.

Buy, not build

Peterson updated the board on a change in a home-building project of the high school's building trades program.

Two months ago, the board authorized the superintendent to buy a lot where students of teacher Lonny Truelsen would work with local building contractors to build a house starting next fall.

But Peterson said the project has been scaled back - the plan now is to buy a house to renovate during the next school year as training for students before they tackle a more ambitious project.

Building a house could follow in the 2018-19 school year, he said, after students have developed skills that would lessen the need to hire professional contractors.

Peterson said the program still would buy tools and fill a construction trailer with what students would need to develop building skills through hands-on experience.

"Our goal still is to give the kids those skills contractors are looking to hire," he said.

Tax rate reduced

The board approved a 2017-18 budget with a tax rate of $14.658 per $1,000 of assessed value, about 3.5 cents less than the current rate.

Still, the budget anticipates raising about 2.3 percent more in property taxes with a lower rate because of an increase in the taxable value of property in the district.

The board meeting started with a public hearing on the budget, but no one showed up to comment on or question the plan to spend about $22.5 million and leave an operating balance of more than $6 million.

The board also approved a $2.1 million adjustment within the current budget to account for an imbalance among school funds. A public hearing on that proposal also attracted no comments.

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