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Court rules in favor of Education Association: Ruling limits Dickinson to offer one-year contract

The North Dakota Supreme Court has upheld a lower court’s decision to limit Dickinson Public Schools’ ability to offer one-year contracts to teachers, chalking up another win for the Dickinson Education Association.

In a 4-1 opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that the Southwest District Court did not misinterpret the law in limiting the school district to unilaterally offering a one-year contract for the 2013-14 school year. Justice Gerald W. VandeWalle wrote the association showed that it had a clear and legal right to relief, and that the district court did not abuse its discretion in granting the association’s petition for a writ of mandamus.

“In the back of my mind, I felt confident that we were going to win,” lead association negotiator Brian Woehl wrote. “But I didn’t want to put that out there and count my chickens before they hatch, so to speak. But it’s a huge victory for all teachers across the whole state.”

The opinion states the school was arguing it had authority to issue contracts based on the findings of an education fact-finding commission. The commission’s report, published in June 2013, recommended the association and school district sign a two-year contract.

The association sought and was granted a writ of mandamus in August 2013, which suspended continuing contract offers made by the Dickinson Public School Board. The district court granted a petition that offering a two-year negotiated agreement is not lawful under North Dakota Century Code and that the board should offer one-year agreements.

The school district appealed the decision, stating the association did not meet its burden of proof to show it had 

“clear legal right to the granting of the petition for writ of mandamus.”

The district may issue last-offer contracts, but that contract is limited to contractual provisions for the one school year applicable, the justice wrote, meaning it may not contain provisions for future school years, so as to preserve the association’s ability to negotiate in following years.

“We are mindful of the unequal bargaining power created by the school district’s authority to end contract negotiations,” VandeWalle wrote. “The apparent purpose of allowing a school district to bring good-faith negotiations for an ensuing school year to an end is to permit the schools to operate with a teaching staff for that school year. Limiting a school districts authority to issue unilateral last-offer contracts to a single school year then under negotiation is consistent with that purpose.”

Justice Daniel J. Crothers dissented, writing the association did not establish the required “clear legal right to performance of particular act south to be compelled by the writ.”

“I would hold that the district court abused its discretion by misapplying the law, and would reverse and vacate the writ,” Crothers wrote. “The record shows the District and the Association held ten (10) collective bargaining meetings between December 11, 2012 and May 22, 2013.”

Crothers argued to negotiate means to present proposals and offer counterproposals. The school and association had a 10-year history of offering two-year contracts, and the court erred in its decision, Crothers wrote.

“Instead, North Dakota law does authorize the District to unilaterally issue contracts for two school years when that was the contract duration negotiated by the parties from December 11, 2012 to near the end of the last negotiations meeting on May 22, 2013,” he wrote. “Holding otherwise dilutes protections afforded to both negotiating parties that last-offer contracts are limited to issues negotiated by the parties.”

Lyle Smith, who observed the negotiations, said he felt dismayed by the actions and the attitude of the school board, but he is ready to work out an agreement for the 2014-15 school year.

“It’s disappointing that the school district had to spend so much money on something, I think, could’ve been totally avoided, if their heels weren’t dug in quite so hard into the sand,” he wrote in a statement.

The board has not met to discuss the decision, President Kris Fehr said. An executive session is scheduled for the school board to discuss the matter on Aug. 11.

April Baumgarten
April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, as the news editor. She works with a team of talented journalists and editors, who strive to give the Grand Forks area the quality news readers deserve to know. Baumgarten grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family continues to raise registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college,  she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as the Dickinson city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.