Belgrade teachers have voted overwhelmingly to accept a proposed contract that would provide pay raises over three years and end a year of frustration over failed negotiations.

Teachers, who worked last year without a new contract, voted "yes" by 97 percent, Joe Rossman, eighth-grade history teacher and president of Belgrade Education Association, said Thursday. The union has roughly 185 members.

"It's a great feeling," Rossman said. "It's a positive thing for everybody, the school district and the teachers. We're very pleased with what we got. ... It's very fair, considering the economy."

"I feel really like we can move forward," said Belgrade's new superintendent, Candy Lubansky. "It feels like people worked hard to get an agreement everybody can stand by."

Lubansky said she will recommend approval when the School Board meets Sept. 13 and votes on the contract and both she and Rossman said they expect the trustees will vote yes.

Rossman said that even with the pay raises, some teachers would actually see less in their take-home pay, because of a steep hike in health insurance premiums. Teachers at the top of the pay scale with families might get a $1,280 annual raise, yet see their monthly insurance go up about $200 a month or $2,400 a year, which would more than wipe out their pay raise, he said.

The agreement calls for teachers' base pay to increase by 2 percent for last school year, 1.75 percent for this year, and 1.5 percent next year.

In addition to those base pay increases, individual teachers also move up the pay ladder as they add years of experience and get more education.

The annual pay for starting Belgrade teachers would rise to around $32,000. The most experienced, most highly educated teachers would earn around $65,000, Rossman said.

The two sides started bargaining in May 2009, but for a long time they were stuck, with teachers seeking raises and the school district offering zero increase. The school district was facing a terrible economy, a construction boom gone bust that had thrown many Belgrade residents out of work, stalling enrollment growth, and the unprecedented defeat of two annual school levies by voters.

Talks assisted by a state mediator failed in February. Teachers expressed their frustration with the lack of agreement by wearing buttons that said "Working without a contract," and carrying picket signs last spring to School Board meetings and at a busy Belgrade street corner.

But teachers never let their frustrations hurt their teaching in the classroom, Rossman said.

Lubansky said even though they worked the first week and a half of this school year without a contract, "Teachers came in ready to work for kids."

The school district's budget remains tight, she said. Enrollment appears to be up by about 50 students in the high school, but it's too soon to say if that will hold true when the official student count is made Oct. 1.

"It's a great feeling" to finally have an agreement, Rossman said.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 582-2633.