Written by Herald-News
“Experienced kindergarteners” at Frontier Elementary School took the lead as role models for next year’s kindergarten class that will replace them when they move up to first grade in August. All incoming four- and five-year-old future kindergarteners were invited to spend the morning in Cathy O’Neil’s class, Thursday, May 7. The all-day kindergarten class has expectations that include identifying 100 words and knowing how to use a computer, and there is play time. Pictured on the jungle gym during a recess are (from left to right) Miliyna Smoker-DeWitt, Evan Yant, Hailey Ward, Suzie Symington, Keauni Strikes Many, Garrett Toavs, Jazz Azure and Jett Azure. (Photo by John Plestina)
Written by John Plestina
The outgoing Wolf Point School board voted unanimously to reinstate the preschool program for the next school year during the monthly school board meeting Monday, May 11.
The same board cut the preschool program and approved $296,309 in additional cuts, including teachers and other jobs May 28, 2014, to offset financial woes.
Voters had rejected two levies in the May 2014 school district election, including one that would have funded the preschool.
The preschool program is largely funded by federal Title VII funds. Cutting it one year ago, saved the district about $120,000 for the last school year.
Superintendent Joe Paine recommended that the board reinstate the preschool program. He said the district lost other Title VII funding when the preschool was discontinued.
The old board also voted unanimously to rescind its April vote approving five-year copier lease agreements for Southside and Northside schools and the junior high/high school with Marco Inc. for copier services that include equipment, service, purchase and delivery of initial supplies, installation and training at a total cost for the junior high/high school is $1,302 per month, $1,286 monthly for Southside School and $256 per month for Northside School. Copier services had not been put out to bid.
The board also voted to advertise and solicit bids for copier services.
In another matter, the board voted to not offer educational assistance to district employees due to a lack of funding.
The board also approved membership in the Montana High School Association for the 2015-2016 school year.
In other business, the board addressed two student personnel issues in a closed executive session. One student will be readmitted with a behavioral contract and the other will return to school half days with a readmittance hearing in August.
Written by John Plestina
The union that represents non-certified staff at Wolf Point schools fired back at school district officials over financial assertions with collective bargaining negotiations stalled during a meeting with The Herald-News at Southside Elementary School Thursday, May 7.
About two months of ongoing negotiations began in February between the Wolf Point School District and the Wolf Point Education Association, the teachers’ union, and the Wolf Point Educational Support Staff Association, which represents non-certified school staff, including classroom aides, cafeteria workers and other non-teaching staff. Two meetings followed between the district and the WPESSA with a Montana Department of Labor and Industry mediator with an impasse over health insurance and wage proposals.
The school district maintains that it cannot afford higher costs for health insurance and wages. The WPESSA position is that the district can afford to pay more.
The WPEA did not participate in mediation. The teachers and district remain with unresolved labor issues.
A completely new school board was elected May 5 and seated Monday, May 11. The possibility remains of the deadlock going to arbitration. An arbitrator, unlike a mediator who brings recommendations and proposals to each side, would have authority to make decisions.
Maggie Copeland of Glendive, the eastern Montana field representative for educational unions, said not settling contract issues with health insurance concerns resolved and coverage in place for employees by July 1 could result in a violation of the Affordable Care Act. She said negotiations are also subject to the Montana Collective Bargaining Act.
The U.S. Treasury Department had required compliance by employers with the ACA by July 1, 2014, or face fines for non-compliance. The Treasury Department extended the deadline until July 1 of this year.
“They gave them another year to get their ducks in a row,” Copeland said.
“We don’t see it going to arbitration. After mediation, we can go back to face-to-face bargaining. We really think we can move this thing along,” she said.
“I do think we were so close to the election and the superintendent search that they [former school board] were uncomfortable,” Copeland said.
If arbitration is averted, union representatives would meet with members of the newly elected school board and possibly with superintendent Joe Paine, who will remain in place until June 30. He is resigning to accept a new position in Grenora, N.D. Attempts to hire a new superintendent have been unsuccessful.
The current two-year contract that will expire June 30 was negotiated in 2013.
Copeland said negotiations stalled in part because of what she perceives as an unwillingness to move forward by former school board chairman Martin DeWitt.
“What we got from Mr. DeWitt was they’d rather pay the fine,” she said.
Copeland said under the ACA, the school district would be fined and would still have to pay for insurance.
“I tried at the very end to work with Mr. DeWitt,” she said.
The WPESSA is asking for the district to pay $1,356 per month for every employee, while the school district has offered $937.50 per month, per employee, for health insurance coverage and health savings accounts. That would leave employees with families having to pick up part of the cost. Neither side has wavered on the $418.50 difference.
Copeland said she does not understand why DeWitt thinks district employees must have HSAs. She said the district could accept the $1,356 proposal and drop the HSA.
“The number 1 issue we want to address is affordability,” Copeland said.
The district is paying $19,526 per year for insurance for 12-month classified employees, a small portion of the district employees represented by the WPESSA. A large portion of the non-certified staff are nine-month employees.
Copeland said two people sitting at the table during the meeting with The Herald-News have been willing to reduce what the district is contributing for them for insurance. They are 12-month district office employees Connie Neubauer and Jennifer Zimmerman, who is the WPESSA president.
“We’re losing,” Neubauer said and added, “As long as it’s affordable.”
Copeland said everyone should be equal.
She said about $209,000 more would be spent with the $1,356 per employee proposal and dropping the HSA.
Copeland cited the district paying $1,006,716 for WPEA-represented teachers for the current school year as opposed to $233,068 for WPESSA-represented workers. Copeland called the difference a disparity.
There are 71 district employees represented by the WPEA and 54 represented by the WPESSA.
Paine and members of the former school board said a staff reduction and facilities maintenance cuts could be forced with the union proposal.
The cost to the district of the WPESSA proposal would be $627,750 per year, according to information Paine provided.
Copeland said the WPESSA proposal would not financially break the school district.
“I don’t understand why when we go to the table and they were so rude to us. It’s so different with the teachers,” Zimmerman said. “They’re trying to make it look like we’re the bad guys.”
Copeland said the district is blaming the classified staff for pulling the teachers down.
“That’s not an accurate portrayal,” she said.
During the second mediation meeting, Paine provided results of a survey he conducted of health insurance costs of 10 eastern Montana school districts and seven private and governmental employers in Wolf Point. The average employer health insurance contribution by school districts is $754.50 with only one district paying more than $937.40 and contributions by the seven local employers averaging $593 per employee.
Paine said he felt that $937.50 is well above average.
He and members of the former school board have maintained that $1,356 is more money than the district can afford.
The district has agreed to a $220,000 increase to the budget that includes insurance and a district-proposed 1 percent pay increase for certified staff and 25 cents per hour for non-certified employees that have been employed 12 months or longer.
The district hopes to replace the gym floor, bleachers and ceiling in the high school gym, repave the high school parking lot and fund other facilities maintenance needs. Voters have not approved levies to fund improvements.
A general fund budget analysis by the state Office of Public Instruction shows that the number of teachers decreased and elementary enrollments increased between Fiscal Year 2009 and the current budget year [high school enrollments decreased], with state funding to the district per pupil for the same period increasing. Property tax revenue increased by $86,524 since 2009.
“They have literally saved almost a million dollars on teacher salaries alone,” Copeland said.
Classified staff has been represented since 2005. It took three and a half years to get a first contract. Teachers have had union representation for considerably longer.
Written by John Plestina
The Roosevelt County Commissioners approved a special prosecutor, Tuesday, May 12, for a case in 15th District Court against an oilfield worker from Florida accused of multiple counts including kidnapping and rape.
The commissioners voted to appoint a special prosecutor through the Montana Attorney General’s Prosecution Services Bureau to provide technical assistance to the Roosevelt County Attorney for the case against Joseph Martin Laturell, 52, of Florida and recently of Bainville.
He pleaded not guilty in March to felony charges of sexual intercourse without consent, aggravated kidnapping and partner or family member assault, third offense.
Laturell has been lodged in the Roosevelt County Jail since March 8, held on $50,000 bail.
In other business, the commissioners approved a joint resolution that was also passed by the Culbertson City Council that will pave the way for a federal FAA grant for expansion of Big Sky Field, the county-owned airport in Culbertson.
The federal grant will cover 90 percent of costs. The total cost of the project is estimated at $152,000.
With the joint resolution, the county and municipal governments can secure the loan and put the project out for bids.
The project that is estimated to be completed in 2020 includes several land acquisitions.
Written by John Plestina
With all votes counted on Tuesday, May 5, the Wolf Point School District has a completely new school board that was sworn in Monday, May 11.
The group calling itself Native Vote had sought to capture all six seats, backing Native American candidates in all five newly-created single-member districts and the one at-large position. The new board will be 50 percent Native American.
Two Native Vote-backed candidates were elected in districts 45-2 and 45-5. Another candidate who is Native American and a lifelong resident of Wolf Point, but not backed by Native Vote, defeated a candidate backed by that group in District 45-1.
The 2015 election was one of the highest voter turnouts for a Wolf Point School District election with 988 of the 1,984 registered voters casting mail-in ballots. That is four votes under 50 percent.
Results were as follows:
District 45-1, two-year term: Corey E. Reum, 174; Yvonne Smoker-Bashay, 42. Five voters did not vote for a candidate in the district. The voter turnout was 45.70 percent. Reum won with 81 percent of the vote. District 45-1 is the western part of the north side of Wolf Point.
District 45-2, one-year term: Linda L. Hansen, 83; Jaronn R. Boysun [incumbent], 45. At-large candidate Brandon Babb received one write-in vote. Three voters did not vote for a candidate in the district. The voter turnout was 60.60 percent. Hansen won with 65 percent of the vote. District 45-2 is south of Fairweather Street.
District 45-3, three-year term: Mark Kurokawa, 89; Gib R. Medicine, Cloud 42. Tina Magnan received one write-in vote. Three voters did not vote for a candidate in the district. The voter turnout was 57.01 percent. Kurokawa won with 67 percent of the vote. District 45-3 is on the south side and north of Fairweather Street.
District 45-4, three-year term: LaRae Hanks, 192l Paul K. Gysler, 31; Lawrence “Larry” Wetsit, 23. One voter did not vote for a candidate in the district. The voter turnout was 42.56 percent. Hanks won with 78 percent of the vote. District 45-4 includes the eastern part of the north side of Wolf Point and a small part of the south side to Benton Street.
District 45-5, two-year term: Lanette Clark, 78; Mary Vine, 59. Clark won with 57 percent of the vote. The voter turnout was 52.76 percent. The district is on the north side of Wolf Point.
At-large district 45A, one-year term: Brandon Babb, 445; Glenn Strader, 288; Roxanne Gourneau, 238. Lance Fourstar and Yvonne Smoker-Bashay each received one write-in vote. The voter turnout was 50.20 percent. Babb won with nearly 46 percent of the vote. District 45A includes all of Wolf Point and the Frontier School District.
Federal court-mandated redistricting in 2014 forced the election for all board seats with five of six in single-member districts and one at-large position.
All six trustees were previously elected at-large.
After the 2015 election, all trustee elections will be for three-year terms.
The Frontier School District did not hold an election because incumbents Brandon Babb and Bill Pew ran unopposed. Babb, who chairs the Frontier board, will serve on both boards.
Poplar voters rejected two incumbents.
The school district reported the following results: Elected to the board were Debra McGowan, 268 votes; and Howard Azure, 121. Results for other candidates were: Faith O’Connor [incumbent], 83; Shannon Knowlton, 81; Rick Kirn, 53; Thomas Brown, 49; Scotty Azure, 40; Susan L. Ennis, 28; Jodie Boyd, 21; James DeHerrera, 21; Noah Strauser [incumbent], 16; George Budak, 14.
In Brockton, incumbents Leonard Boxer will retain his seat with 63 votes. The other incumbent, Rodney Burshia, lost to Darren Long Hair, 77-28.