Mediated agreement settles tutors’ labor dispute

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Kalispell Public Schools board of trustees recently approved a mediated memorandum of agreement between the school district, the former Kalispell Tutors Federation and the Kalispell Federation of Classified Personnel. As a result, the tutor union’s unfair labor practice charge was dismissed and a grievance it filed was withdrawn.

The disagreements began following a June 2019 school board decision to eliminate tutor positions, thus dissolving the Tutors Federation as part of more than $1.7 million in budget cuts. The decision impacted 13 employees who were offered paraprofessional positions, which is part of the classified union.

The change in job title and responsibilities would have resulted in a pay cut since paraprofessional positions pay less than tutors. Through further discussion, the board agreed to freeze tutors’ hourly rate for the 2019-20 school year, delaying the pay reduction to the 2020-21 school year. At the time, the difference in pay was $117,538 in the elementary district and $47,128 in the high school district. Tutors were also given the option to take $3,000 in severance pay, or retire.

In addition to the tutors, two library assistant and two hall monitor classified union positions were eliminated and the employees offered paraprofessional positions, if qualified — a lateral move on the pay scale for the assistants and an hourly rate increase for the monitors.

Many people showed up to that June 2019 board meeting in support of the employees. Some employees questioned the timing of the announcement in May in relation to June and August deadlines they were given to plan financially and decide whether or not they were going to take severance pay, continue employment with the district, or retire, which is why the board ultimately voted to delay a pay reduction.

In August 2019, the tutor union filed an unfair labor practice charge, “... alleging that the School District had failed to bargain in good faith in regards to the elimination of the tutor position and the resultant reduction in force of all tutors,” according to the memorandum of agreement. The tutor union also filed the grievance, contesting the elimination of the tutor position. The district denied it failed to bargain in good faith or that it violated the tutors’ collective bargaining agreement.

The school district and tutor union reached an agreement after participating in two days of mediation in December 2019, which resulted in the dismissal of the unfair labor practice charge and grievance.

As a result of the agreement, most of the original stipulations resulting from the June 2019 board decision remain intact. The significant change is the timing of how the tutor pay will transition to the paraprofessional rate. Rather than immediately reduce the pay in the 2020-21 school year, the hourly rate is going to be reduced by half of the difference between paraprofessional and tutor pay.

Director of Business Services and Operations Gwyn Andersen provided an example.

“If a tutor is making $22 [an hour] this year, for example, and a para makes $15 then they’re going to be paid like $18.50 for 2020,” Andersen.

By 2021-22 the employees will be paid at the paraprofessional hourly rate.

Before trustees took a final vote on Jan. 28, former tutor union president Alex Schaeffer made a last request that the district look at other financial options for returning employees. One affected longtime employee, Marcia Ham, also spoke, voicing her displeasure with the district’s financial decisions.

“I never in a million years thought the school district would devalue us and treat us in a way you are approving,” Ham said.

Trustee Mike Merchant said he was sorry the agreement was being viewed as a power struggle, but he was satisfied that due process and labor laws were followed with fairness and consistency in the best interest of the district and students.

Both tutors and paraprofessionals work with students one-on-one and in small groups to provide academic support and intervention while assisting classroom teachers. One of the primary differences is that tutors’ work is limited to working with students on academics. Paraprofessionals, on the other hand, may have flexibility in their duties, and for example, may supervise playgrounds and lunchrooms. Paraprofessionals also do not have a prep period.

As far as education, the minimum requirement for a student support employee such as a paraprofessional and tutor is an associate degree, or the alternative is passing a competency test. Most of the district’s tutors have bachelor degrees or higher and many have teaching certificates.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or

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