Teachers Union Negotiations Stall as Kalispell Schools Face Mounting Budget Pressures

The Kalispell School District and its certified teachers union have failed to reach a bargaining agreement for the first time in two decades, signaling growing unease within the district as it contends with a $1.7 million budget deficit. District officials say inflation and an out-of-date state funding formula are to blame for budget shortfalls.

By Denali Sagner
The entrance to the Kalispell Public Schools office in downtown Kalispell on Sept. 27, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Following months of negotiations, the Kalispell Public Schools (KPS) and its teachers union have failed to reach a collective bargaining agreement, stalling talks until September and forcing the district to operate under an expired agreement as it heads into the new school year. The unsuccessful union negotiations mark yet another roadblock for the Flathead Valley’s largest school district as it contends with a mounting budget deficit. As school districts across the state face financial woes, administrators point to inflation and an outdated state funding formula as causes for concern.

The Kalispell Education Association (KEA) and KPS administration reached an impasse this spring over wages for new and incoming teachers, which union representatives say have failed to keep up with the rising cost of living in the Flathead Valley. Administrators say that inflationary costs, the state’s archaic school funding formula and an inability to pass local levies have put the district in an impossible place, and that while they are bargaining with the union in good faith, reductions in programs and staff are inevitable.  

“We know that the district is facing staffing cuts just like most AA districts, but we did not ask for the moon,” KEA Vice President Anthony Lapke said in a statement on Friday. “We bargained to receive the average starting wage amongst AA schools and other K-12 districts in the Flathead Valley. We are losing our young teachers and are having quality candidates turn down offers. Our wages have not kept up with inflation, and we are nearly 10% below cost of living adjustments over the last decade.”

The KEA represents 460 teachers, school psychologists, speech and language pathologists, special educators and nurses in the Kalispell School District and is a local affiliate of the Montana Federation of Public Employees.

“We really value and appreciate the perspective of the union. These are great teachers that take on additional responsibilities to represent their peers,” KPS Superintendent Matt Jensen told the Beacon last week. “They’re not wrong in asking for as much as they can.”

However, Jensen said, the district’s financial woes are acute, and increasing spending in one place will inevitably lead to cuts in another. KPS is set to run a $1.7 million budget deficit for the 2024-25 school year — $464,000 at the elementary level and a $1.24 million at the high school level.

While the elementary district has seen support from voters, helping to keep its budget deficit relatively low, voters in the high school district have not passed a levy since 2007. Most recently, high school district voters rejected a $700,000 general fund levy that would have cost $1 per month for a homeowner with a home assessed value of $300,000.

Lynne Rider, KEA president, understands that the district is in “a tough position.” Rider said that while it’s easy to criticize district administration, state funding for education has put an undue burden local residents to fund public schools and has forced the hand of districts in making deep budget cuts. The state funds 80% of a school district’s budget and requires communities to supply the other 20% with local levies and grants.

Though she empathizes with the district’s constraints, Rider said the union could not accept the salary matrix proposed by KPS given the high cost of living in the area.

“We really do believe that we need to offer our new teachers a living wage, or at least get close to it,” she said.

The district’s most recent proposal set the base pay for Kalispell teachers at $40,489 for the 2024-25 school year — a 6% increase from this year’s base of $38,197. Among the state’s other class AA districts, the proposed salary would put the Kalispell’s starting pay below Bozeman, Billings, Helena and Missoula and above Butte, Belgrade and Great Falls when compared to 2023-24 numbers. Other districts will likely raise their salaries for the coming year, adjusting these rankings.

The KEA proposed a $43,000 starting salary, which Rider said would put KPS employees at the middle of the pack once other districts adjust their base salaries for the 2024-25 school year.

KPS spends more than any other AA district on benefits for spouses and families of staff, covering 70% of all insurance premiums.

Though KPS is smaller than many of its AA peers, the high cost of living in the Flathead Valley makes sizable salary increases necessary, union representatives said.

According to the Zillow Observed Rent Index (ZORI), the average rent for a home in Kalispell as of April 2024 was $1,957. Average rent prices sat at $1,338 in Billings; $1,424 in Missoula; $1,588 in Helena and $2,343 in Bozeman.

“Our staff lives in a very expensive place. We want to take care of them,” Jensen said at a recent school board meeting.

Kalispell’s budget woes are not unique.

The Billings school board in January voted to close one of its elementary schools and turn the building into a public charter school, citing needs to “balance the budget.” The Missoula County Public Schools last month approved cutting 47 non-tenured positions. The Helena School District is cutting 52 non-tenured teachers.

“This isn’t a Kalispell problem. This is a Montana problem. But we still have to deal with it in Kalispell,” Jensen told the school board.

Jensen said the district is attempting to make cuts without harming student or staff outcomes. KPS will not fill four high school teaching positions that were vacated due to retirements or resignations this year. The district previously attached four new staff positions to the high school general fund levy, which failed earlier this spring. It plans to reconfigure budgets so that certain staff and programs can be funded through the two state-funded charter schools that will open in Kalispell this fall. It will continue to leverage grant funding and the interlocal agreement, a pocket of money that acts as a savings account for the district. Jensen hopes the state Legislature will reconsider how it funds schools in the 2025 session.

Nonetheless, cuts are inevitable.

While the district is able to move forward without any layoffs for the upcoming school year, it plans to reduce its staff by around 30 teachers for the 2025-26 school year. KPS plans to pass a negative budget in August with the intention of balancing the district’s books in the coming years.

“We’re not in a position where we’re thinking they’re totally out of line,” Jensen said of the union. However, he added, “those decisions translate into reductions somewhere else, and we just want to be really thoughtful and calculated.” 

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