Teacher contract negotiations head toward arbitration | SierraSun.com

Teacher contract negotiations head toward arbitration

With both sides refusing to budge, contract negotiations between the school district and its teaching staff are expected to go into fact-finding later this week.

Fact-finding, as an arbitration process, can be lengthy – lasting anywhere from 45 days to four months – meaning it’s likely teachers will return to classes in the fall without a contract.

Legally, at that point in time, teachers have the right to go on strike, but union representatives have pledged to continue with negotiations, which began last October.

“We haven’t been certified by the state [for fact-finding] at this point, but I don’t really see any other options,” said Tahoe-Truckee Unified School District Superintendent Pat Gemma. “The district has made its last, best and final offer, and we simply can’t do anything more.”

That offer included a 2.36 percent increase in salary schedule, stipends to speech and language personnel, and 67 percent of all dollars that are beyond the district’s 4 percent designated reserve for economic uncertainty – to be determined when the district closes its books in September.

The teachers’ negotiating team accepted that offer with two contingencies: that teachers were guaranteed 2 percent or a cost of living increase (COLA), which ever is greater, for the 2002-03 year, and that the district agree to pay 80 percent of all employee health care costs, leaving employees to pay 20 percent.

The district refused.

“The issue of increasing health care costs needs to be addressed,” said Nancy Kerr, one of the head negotiators for TTEA, the teacher’s union. “At the end of the 2000-01 school year, our out-of-pocket costs were $36.90 per month. Over the summer they increased $85 to $121.90 per month. Next year, they’re projected rate increases of up to $144 per month.”

According to Kerr, the district’s offer – in the face of increasing insurance costs – would actually require teacher’s to take a pay cut.

“We’d be earning roughly 5 percent less than we did two years ago and that’s completely unacceptable,” she said. “There’s ways that the district can avoid this, however, through good financial management and that’s part of what we hope to demonstrate during fact-finding.”

Although frustrated, both sides were optimistic that fact-finding would finally bring closure to ongoing disputes over the district’s financial situation.

“I think this might be necessary to get the district off the hook, so to speak,” Gemma said. “If people have any concerns about the district hiding money, I’m hoping that fact-finding will show them just how difficult our financial situation really is right now.”

Severe state budget cuts for education coupled with the district’s continued decline in student enrollment have dealt significant blows to the district’s financial status, according to Gemma.

Kerr said she hopes fact-finding will help nail down some of the numbers in the district’s budget that have been difficult to pinpoint.

“The outcome will at least show us how the district does its budget,” she said.

Gemma said he expects to receive a letter of certification for fact-finding in the next week or so.

“Once that happens, one side needs to confirm that we are starting the process and then begin selecting panel members,” he said.

In fact-finding, a panel of three is gathered to hear both sides present budget information and their position in terms of what they believe to be the district’s ability to pay.

The district selects one panel member, while TTEA selects another. The third panel member is mutually agreed upon, or state-appointed if no agreement can be reached. After hearing presentations from both sides, the panel makes a ruling, which then becomes public.

“If anything, I hope that [fact-finding] will create a process for future bargaining to make it more effective,” Kerr said. “I also hope that it makes the district more accountable for their finances. If that’s all it accomplishes, that will still be huge for us.”