FARGO—For North Dakota's Education Fact-Finding Commission, 2017 was a busy year.
Nine school districts in the state failed to break impasses in teacher contract talks on their own and called in the trio, hoping an outside perspective would find a compromise teachers unions and school boards could shake hands on.
The process worked in Rolla, Dunseith, Grand Forks, Turtle Lake-Mercer, Mapleton, Jamestown and Bismarck.
But in Fargo and Williston, the fact-finders' suggestions failed to produce a deal. Both school boards unilaterally issued one-year contracts. Individual teachers could sign on or walk away.
That puts Fargo and Williston teachers unions and school boards back at the negotiating table—this coming Thursday, Jan. 11, in Fargo's case—to try to hammer out another contract.
"The sting has worn off," said Fargo Education Association President Laura Christensen. "We're feeling more solution-oriented" than looking back.
Fargo's talks broke down over teacher pay raises and school safety concerns.
Christensen said the district is taking a deliberate approach to addressing school safety.
But teacher pay could again prove to be an area of contention.
"There's resentment" about pay, Christensen said.
Some Fargo teachers are unhappy school board negotiators took a hard line on pay raises, particularly since they felt teacher union support for the mill levy initiative helped the measure pass in 2017, Christensen said. That vote allowed the district to have a higher general fund mill levy than set by state law, and collect taxes on increases in property values.
More recently, the Fargo School Board voted to seek bids for a $16.3 million expansion and renovation of Discovery Middle School.
Christensen said "quite a few people" are "feeling rankled" that the district refused to increase its pay offer, but found millions of dollars for bricks and mortar. Teachers who signed contracts last August were given a $500 raise.
Jim Johnson, president of the Fargo School Board, said he is optimistic the talks can be successful but that economics haven't changed for the school district.
State per-pupil funding for the biennium was set by the Legislature in the last session, he said.
"The board would surely like to give them (teachers) a fair raise," Johnson said. "The question is where we land on fair ... given the economics."
'Trying to be fair'
Lanny Gabbert, a high school science teacher and president of the Williston Education Association, says contract talks in Williston have been contentious for years. The latest impasse was the second in 10 years and it was the second time a contract was imposed.
Teacher morale has dipped, Gabbert said.
"We're taxpayers. Part of the salary is coming from us," Gabbert said.
"We're just asking for just compensation for the job we do," Gabbert said. "We're trying to be fair. But it never comes across that way."
Kim Semenko, president of the Williston School Board, said beyond flat state K-12 education funding, her district faces other challenges, too.
Williston School District is 16 square miles and won't get bigger, so property tax revenues won't grow much, Semenko said. Meanwhile, as the city of Williston grows, new families want their children to open enroll into Williston's schools. Between 500 and 550 students have come to the district in recent years.
"When you think of it, that's an entire new building" of children, Semenko said.
Employee salaries and benefits make up 80 to 82 percent of expenditures, she said.
"We want to pay our teachers and entire staff a decent living," Semenko said, but there are other things to pay for. "You just have to be responsible."
Dean Rummel, chairman of the state's Fact-Finding Commission, agrees that flat state education funding has hobbled school boards' abilities to pay teachers more.
But rising or dropping enrollments, sluggish growth, limited property tax authority, major space needs, building maintenance and inflation, have to be factored in, too.
"Salaries and benefits are oftentimes 70 percent of a school district's annual budget, so with no new state money, it becomes nearly impossible to increase wages," Rummel said.
Pay issues loom
Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United, which represents the state's teacher and public employee unions, said the pay issue looms larger longterm.
Several teaching areas are seeing shortages around the state, he said. With education majors graduating from college with an average of $28,000 in school loans, they'll seek work where they earn enough to pay their bills.
"If we want our grads to stay in the state, we want them to have decent jobs that they can go to," Archuleta said..
The perceived fairness of the fact-finders' decisions depends on who feels they won or lost with the commission's opinions.
Christensen said the Fargo teachers union and ND United believe the fact-finders' opinions generally follow the positions of the school boards.
Gabbert says fact-finding decisions the last five years produced just "a couple of opinions of fact-finding commissions that haven't favored" school boards.
But school board representatives say an outside perspective is worthwhile.
"I think it works as a huge benefit to both sides. They are impartial and keep the emotions out of it," Semenko said.
Johnson is also glad the Fargo School District could call on the fact-finders.
"I think it's much better when the board and the teachers can come to an agreement and not even come to that point," Johnson said. "I'm grateful for their efforts. I just don't want to have to see them again."
Rummel rejects the thought that fact-finders would favor school boards over teachers, or vice versa.
"If you were to ask all nine of the school boards that went to impasse, a number of school boards would probably feel that the Fact-Finding Commission's recommendations were tilted toward the education associations," Rummel said. "The commissioners attempt to make recommendations that are reasonable, rational, responsible and affordable."
In Williston, Gabbert said he wasn't optimistic the teachers union there would fare well on pay in the coming round of talks.
Semenko says she has no good feel for how Williston's next round of contract talks will turn out.
"My crystal ball is cracked. I have no idea," Semenko said.
Christensen said there is concern among Fargo teachers that an impasse could happen again. At the same time, she doesn't expect a confrontative negotiation.
"Absolutely not! We have every expectation that the board will meet us with good faith bargaining," Christensen said. "We have to believe that. Or, we won't make progress."