Wolf Point Herald

Round 1 Of Mediation Ends In Stalemate

The first round of collective bargaining mediation ended in a deadlock, Thursday, April 23, between the Wolf Point School District and the Wolf Point Educational Support Staff Association, which represents non-certified school staff.
The WPESSA, which represents classified school district employees that include non-certified aides, cafeteria workers and others, requested intervention by a state mediator because of continuing stalemates over employee health insurance and wages.
The Montana Department of Labor and Industry assigned Max Hallfrisch of Great Falls, a member of the Department of Labor and Industry’s Board of Personnel Appeals, to mediate the Wolf Point negotiations.
Negotiations that have been ongoing since February between the school district negotiations committee that consists of superintendent Joe Paine and representatives of the school board, the WPESSA and the Wolf Point Education Association, which represents teachers. The WPEA did not participate in mediation and will meet again with the school district’s negotiations committee, Wednesday, April 29.
“I would say right now [Friday, April 24] our biggest obstacle is to come to an agreement on health insurance,” Paine said.
Part of the issue is that the district will, by law [Affordable Care Act], have to include nine-month employees.
Insurance coverage has been optional for the employees who are paid by the hour and work only during the school year.
“In reality, it is optional but not nearly affordable,” Paine said and added that the cost would take a significant portion of some employee’s paychecks.
District employees will be going to tiered rates that will include single, employee and spouse, parent with child and a family plan.
The cost to the district of the WPESSA proposal would be $627,750 per year, according to Paine.
“I’m concerned where the district will be able to come up with those funds when you look at the facilities that are in need of repair,” he said.
The school district is offering to pay $937.50 per month, per employee, for insurance coverage. That would leave employees with families having to pick up part of the cost.
The WPESSA is asking for the district to pay $1,356 per month for every employee to purchase whatever coverage they wish.
The district has agreed to a $220,000 increase to the district 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 WPSD’s current two-year collective bargaining agreements with the two unions expire June 30. The district hopes to have new agreements in place before that.
Neither side is bound by a mediator’s recommendations.
Hallfrisch was a Teamsters Union Local 2 steward, business representative and executive board member for about a 35-year period, and has retired from the Teamsters. He is now a state employee.
A new school board will be seated during the May 11 school board meeting, that may or may not include the one incumbent board member who is running or either of two people with school board experience that are running for board positions. A possible scenario could be a new school board seated in less than two weeks with no experience and a new superintendent taking the helm July 1, possibly someone with little or no knowledge of the Wolf Point district or the local area.
Paine has given notice to resign in June for a position in Grenora, N.D.
There is no cost to the school district for a state mediator. Dues the district pays to the Montana School Boards Association and union dues paid by district employees fund mediation costs by state mediators.
The second round of negotiations with Hallfrisch is scheduled for Thursday, April 30, at 6 p.m.

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Column: From The Editor's Desk -- School District Woes

Mediation, meditation or medication?
It might be just a play on words, but serious questions loom of whether collective bargaining negotiations between the Wolf Point School District and the two unions representing teachers and support staff will be settled before the July 1 deadline and if long-term financial effects could negatively impact the children.
Hopefully, the needs of the students will be the highest priority when decisions are made.
Negotiations between the school district and the unions have been ongoing since February and have stalled over issues that include health insurance costs to the district and union-proposed substantial longevity pay increases that could translate to about $8,000 annually for some long-time employees. There is a difference in the costs to the school district of more than $400,000 between what the district and support staff union are proposing.
A first-round of mediation with a state intermediary, Thursday, April 16, did not settle the thorniest issues. A second meeting with the mediator is planned. It’s anyone’s guess if or when a settlement will be agreed upon. A major concern could be the next school year starting with no signed contract with one or both unions.
Adding to the chaos, a lot of changes are coming to the school district all at once. Following the May 5 election, a new school board will be seated during the May 11 trustees meeting that may or may not include the one incumbent board member who is running or either of two people running for board positions with school board experience. A possible scenario could be an entire school board seated in less than two weeks with no experience. Newly-hired superintendent Jim Baldwin, a former WPHS teacher, athletic director and coach, takes the helm July 1.
The new board will be a first in court-mandated redistricted single-member districts. Five of the six positions will be districted and there will be one at-large board member. The entire six-member current board was elected at-large.
Current superintendent Joe Paine has given notice to resign in June for a position in Grenora, N.D.
What is currently happening might be remembered years from now as a pivotal time for the Wolf Point School District with a new board to take the helm with difficult decisions looming and a new superintendent coming in, leaving a possible scenario of a totally inexperienced school board and a new superintendent who has been away from the Wolf Point School District 21 years. Stirring the pot even more is the departures after the current school year of a significant number of district staff [higher than most years] that include administrators, teachers and coaches.
With the school board having already accepted some resignations and other staff and coaches having given notice, the district must hire one elementary principal, an activities/athletic director for the high school, and head football, boys’ basketball, wrestling and volleyball coaches.
The outgoing school board might fill some positions during the next monthly school board meeting, Monday, May 11. That is the meeting where the new school board will be sworn in.
Staff departures account for 14 students leaving the district that are some of the most gifted students with the highest grade point averages. A loss of enrollment numbers also translates to a loss of some state funding that is based on enrollment figures.
A new board that could be comprised of no one who ever served on a school board might inherit the stalled school district/union negotiations and tough financial decisions that might follow a settlement that could include job and program cuts if all union demands are met.
Facilities are another concern a new board will have to address with the gym, entering its 47th year of Wolves dribbling across the floor, needing a new floor, ceiling and bleachers. The high school parking lot needs to be repaved and other renovations and repairs are needed at school buildings.
Let’s remember the kids come first. Their needs, including a high-quality education for every student, is priority No. 1.

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Spell Sentenced 100 Years

Michael Keith Spell, one of the two men involved in the murder of Sidney teacher Sherry Arnold, was sentenced to 100 years in the Montana State Prison by District Judge Richard Simonton Friday.
None of the sentence was suspended. Spell will be eligible to apply for parole after serving 25 years of the sentence.
“I’m relieved the process has reached its conclusion,” Gary Arnold, husband of Sherry Arnold, said. “The judge supported his decision with clear, concise reasoning.”
Despite a strong closing argument by Defense attorney Al Avignone that Spell could be committed to the director of the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, Gary Arnold said he felt Spell would be sentenced to prison partly because of how much county attorney Mike Weber and deputy county attorney Tom Halvorson kept the family informed.
“I was comfortable, that it was going to turn out the way it turned out,” Gary Arnold said.
Before making the ruling, Simonton said, “The impact that this killing has from the family, Sherry Arnold’s friends and this community has been great. I can’t even imagine what Sherry’s family has gone through and is going through with her unexpected death.”
Simonton said the issue was whether Spell was under the influence of Lester Waters, who was sentenced for 100 years with 20 years suspended for the homicide, enough that he was forced to commit the crime.
“I don’t believe he was. I don’t believe the Defense met its burden,” Simonton said.
Although the Defense argued that Spell should get a shorter sentence than Waters because Spell cooperated with authorities earlier, the judge noted Spell didn’t report to law enforcement. It was his family who contacted law enforcement. Simonton said the two men almost attacked two other women during their trip from Colorado to North Dakota. When they saw Sherry Arnold in Sidney, Spell did some more crack cocaine. When Spell came close to Sherry Arnold, she smiled and he smiled back. Spell then turned around and grabbed the victim from behind. Spell claimed that he felt Arnold was just passed out and he and Waters dragged her into the vehicle. When Waters and Spell went to Wal-Mart, Simonton said Spell didn’t ask anybody for help or try to leave.
Simonton noted that the sentences for Spell and Waters weren’t the same.
“One big difference is that it was Mr. Spell who murdered Sherry,” Simonton said. “Waters is the one who entered into the initial plea agreement and agreed to testify against Spell.”
During Avignone’s closing argument, he asked for a sentence of not greater than 100 years with 20 years suspended with the Department of Health and Human Services.
He noted putting Spell, who suffers with an intellectual disability, in the Montana State Prison would be cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
“If you send him to the Montana State Prison, he’s done,” Avignone said. “He never gets a chance.”
During his closing argument, Weber noted Spell was voluntarily under the influence of alcohol, marijuana and cocaine when he committed the murder. “Granted Mr. Waters did provide the drugs, but this defendant voluntarily consumed the drugs.”
He argued that Spell wasn’t under Waters’ influence. “The State’s theory is that Mr. Waters wasn’t even present” when the homicide took place.
Dr. Craig W. Beaver, a witness for the Defense, testified that Spell, 25, was able to understand the difference between what was right or wrong at the time of the homicide, but he was not able to confirm his behavior due to the influence of Lester Waters.
Beaver testified that Spell was fearful of Waters and that fear along with being intoxicated at the time influenced Spell. When interviewing family members and educators, Beaver said they described Spell as being very much a follower who relied on adults for direction.
Beaver said that family members were fearful of Spell traveling with Waters to North Dakota because Waters could take advantage of the situation. Beaver said Spell told him that Waters talked about people he killed in the past and that he had a knife and a gun. Spell also told Beaver that at one point Waters threatened to sexual assault Spell.
According to a Gudjonsson test, Spell’s score indicated that he could be easily influenced.
Beaver recommended Spell be placed in a setting where there are trained and knowledgable people in dealing with intellectually disabled adults.
When asked by county attorney Mike Weber, Beaver agreed that Spell drank alcohol and used marijuana and crack cocaine voluntarily during his trip to Sidney with Waters.
Judge Simonton asked Beaver if he felt it was strange that Spell didn’t mention his fear of Waters to the probation officer during the pre-sentencing investigation.”Yes, I think that’s unusual,” Beaver said.
Ronald Cummings, a private investigator hired by the Defense in July 2012, said he has had about 60 contacts with Spell. Cummings said Spell mentioned that Waters threatened to kill and also sexual assault Spell.
Judge Simonton asked Cummings if Spell was threatened by Waters before or after the murder in Sidney. Cummings said he felt the threats came after the crime. When asked by Defense attorney Al Avignone, Cummings said threats were made to Spell during the trip regarding if he told anyone about the other murders that Waters talked to Spell about.

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Commissioners OK Several Purchases At Meeting

The Roosevelt County Commissioners approved new carpeting for the Roosevelt County Sheriff’s Office’s Poplar office at a cost of about $2,400 during the weekly meeting Tuesday, April 28.
The sheriff’s office uses the Poplar city-owned building rent-free.
In other business, the commissioners approved the purchase of a new Dodge Ram pickup from Northern Prairie Auto Sales for the county’s disaster and emergency services department for $35,236. It will replace a pickup that has been in use for about 10 years.
The commissioners also approved the purchase of 30,000 tons of gravel at $6.70 per ton.

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Getaway Driver In Northern Lights Casino Robbery Pleads Guilty

The Wolf Point man who drove the getaway car in the Northern Lights Casino robbery nearly two years ago pleaded guilty last week.
Patrick Beauchamp, 35, entered his plea before U.S. District Judge Brian Morris in Great Falls.
Beauchamp was charged with aiding and abetting a robbery after he planned the robbery with others and served as the getaway driver. He faces up to 20 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years supervised release.
Sentencing is scheduled for July 27 at 11 a.m. before Morris.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Weiss told the court that on June 12, 2013, Beauchamp and three others drove around Wolf Point and discussed robbing a casino. Beauchamp was driving and two others got out and went into the Northern Lights Casino with weapons and their faces covered.
One of the robbers hit a casino employee over the head with an axe handle while the other held customers at bay with a bat. The first robber stole money from the casino and the two ran out to the waiting vehicle driven by Beauchamp. More than $1,340 was stolen from the casino.
Police pulled over the men’s car moments later. Officers found cash strewn throughout the vehicle, as well as the bat. The axe handle was found on the floor of the casino.
The Wolf Point Police Department and Fort Peck Tribes Department of Law and Justice investigated the case.

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