Teachers forum sues Noblesville Schools

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The Noblesville School Board announced at its monthly meeting on Sept. 20 that the Noblesville Teachers Forum has filed a lawsuit against Noblesville Schools in Hamilton County Superior Court 2. The purpose of the suit is to force Noblesville Schools to give certain teachers a raise before a new labor contract has been negotiated.

“The timing of the lawsuit seems odd to me. The end result of the lawsuit would result as a significant decrease (in pay),” School Board Member Chris Hamm said.

The collective bargaining agreement between Noblesville Schools and the teachers forum ended July 1 and the two parties have begun negotiations for a new agreement to cover at least the 2011-12 school year. This is the first time the parties have negotiated an agreement under the new state laws passed by the Indiana General Assembly earlier this year. The new laws went into effect on July 1.

School officials said they hoped these negotiations would result in an agreement that would allow it to offer more competitive starting salaries and to grant increases to all teachers, including teachers with higher levels of seniority (19 or more years teaching experience) who have not had a raise in four years.

“They’re fighting for every last piece they have left. I understand that,” Superintendent Libbie Conner said.

Before either side was able to make any salary proposals for the new school year, the forum demanded that Noblesville Schools automatically increase the salary of certain teachers, according to school officials. When Noblesville Schools would not give in to this demand, based on its understanding of the new laws, the union filed the lawsuit and asked the court to order Noblesville Schools to pay not only the increase but an additional penalty of twice the increase and the union’s attorney fees.

“They plan to force the board to pay salary increases right now to some teachers,” said David Day, school attorney.

School officials claim the changes in the collective bargaining law made in the 2011 Indiana General Assembly prohibit the payment of any increase in salary or benefits until a new agreement is reached.

 “We feel reasonably confident in your legal position,” said Day. “This lawsuit is not without risk – you could pay raises and pay twice that amount and teachers union attorney fees. It’s important we defend this lawsuit. . . What the lawsuit is asking us to do is prohibited by state statue. Unfortunately, you are in the stage of testing the new law.”

Conner said the lawsuit would affect 35 percent of the district’s 504 teachers.

“We want to give a raise to all teachers,” she said. “We want to raise the base salary because we are not as competitive as surrounding districts and similar sized districts in the state.”

Conner said state law states that collecting bargaining could not begin until Aug. 1 and must be done by Dec. 31.

“We’re on a very tight timeline,” she said, adding that there are no more talks between the two sides scheduled until Oct. 5.

In addition to the lawsuit, the forum filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board against Noblesville Schools Administration, alleging the administration did not comply with the legislation related to discussion. School officials refute this allegation and claim they made several attempts to schedule a discussion session, which were declined by the forum.

“You’re darned if you do, darned if you don’t,” said Day. “I don’t have a good solution for you with this.”

Day said the possible result if the district lost would be that it would be required to meet with the forum for a discussion – which administrators say has been done – and a reprimand to not repeat the mistake.

“This seems like a scenario where only the lawyers make out,” Hamm said.

Assistant Superintendent Steven Stephanoff said he met with teachers the night before the school board meeting. He said the handbook given by the district to teachers basically the same information found in the teachers contract without salary and benefit information.

“Over 90 percent of it was cut and paste,” Stephanoff said.

As a result of both of these actions, Noblesville Schools is forced to defend against the allegations and expend additional funds to cover court costs and legal fees.

“It could possibly be tens of thousands of dollars,” said Conner. “If it’s triple increment it’d be over a million with attorney fees.”

Members of the teachers forum negotiating team were not in attendance at the school board and declined to talk about the situation.

“I have no comments about the lawsuit and unfair labor practice at this time,” Teachers Forum President Duska Landry said.

Attempts to contact the Indiana State Teachers Association Unified Service Director Rich Frankhouser who is working with the forum were unsuccessful prior to publication time.

The teachers forum and district had a fairly public negotiation last summer as the two sides spent several months discussing experience-based salary schedule increments. A mediator was brought in as the sides could not come together. The 2010-2011 master teachers contract was ratified by both sides on Sept. 7, 2010 – more than three months after that school year had ended.

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