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Teachers union sues Otter, Luna over reform law

Members of Idaho’s statewide teachers union have filed a lawsuit against the state, the governor and Idaho’s public schools chief over a new law that phases out teacher tenure and wipes out collective bargaining over salaries and benefits.

Officials with the Idaho Education Association said April 27 they were challenging the constitutionality of the new law. The education association filed a lawsuit in 4th District Court that names Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and state Superintendent Tom Luna, the two chief architects and supporters of an education reform plan approved by the 2011 Legislature.

Sherri Wood, the union’s president, said teachers are challenging the law “because the Legislature, Governor Otter and State Superintendent Luna failed to listen to the voices of Idaho citizens and … overstepped their legal bounds.”

Otter spokesman Jon Hanian said the governor’s staff had not yet reviewed the lawsuit and declined to comment anyway, citing a policy barring comment on pending litigation.

Idaho Department of Education spokeswoman Melissa McGrath also said the department was in the process of reviewing the lawsuit.

“However, it is not surprising that union leaders are trying to overturn the one bill that phases out tenure, eliminates retirement bonuses, and returns decision-making back to locally elected school boards,” McGrath said.

The law now being challenged in the courts is among three pieces of school reform legislation that Luna and Otter championed during the 2011 Idaho Legislature.

The sweeping reforms generated contentious debate among lawmakers, and spurred teachers, students and other opponents to protest outside the capital in Boise and other cities across the state.

In addition to eliminating tenure and limiting collective bargaining, Luna’s reform package shifted money from salaries to fund new classroom technology and a merit pay plan.

The complaint filed by the union and a pair of teachers claims the law violates the state constitutional requirement that legislation deal with a single subject and a common, unifying purpose.

John Rumel, the union’s chief lawyer, also claims the law is illegal because its repeal of an early retirement incentive program conflicts with existing and vested contracts negotiated by teachers.

“It is the duty of the courts to determine whether laws satisfy constitutional requirements,” Rumel said. “We believe (the education reforms) fall well short of that mark.”

The plaintiffs include Moscow teacher David Graham, Kris Teena Marley, a teacher from Pocatello, and local teacher union organizations in Fremont, Caldwell and Shoshone.

The state’s teachers union is supporting efforts to give voters a chance to repeal all three education reform laws. That vote could be on the 2012 ballot.

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