Teacher contract talks at an impasse | SierraSun.com

Teacher contract talks at an impasse

Katherine Morris

If no agreement is reached by the end of this week, negotiations are expected to move into fact-finding.

“The district brought forward its last, best and final offer at the meeting last week,” said TTUSD Superintendent Pat Gemma. “The basic offer involves the same amount of money as our original offer, however, teachers would receive that money on an ongoing basis through an increase in salary schedule rather than in the form of end-of-the-year bonuses.”

The full offer included: a total compensation package equivalent to a 2.36 percent increase on the salary schedule, stipends to “speech and language personnel” under the same terms as “special education personnel,” and 67 percent of all dollars that are beyond the 4 percent designated as reserve for economic uncertainty – to be determined when the district closes its books in September.

According to TTEA negotiator Nancy Kerr, the union accepted that offer with two contingencies regarding the following school year.

“First, we wanted the district to guarantee us that we would receive 2 percent or COLA, which ever is greater, for the 2002-03 school year,” Kerr said. “We also asked that they address our serious health benefit needs by establishing a floating cap in which the district would pay 80 percent of our costs and employees would pay 20 percent. With that, the district negotiators left the table, saying that they were unable to agree to those contingencies.”

In a letter to the district’s teachers, Gemma pointed to the volatile state of California’s budget as a key reason for refusing TTEA’s counter-offer.

“There is a significant chance that the deficit on student revenue limit will come back next year. With this potential it would be fiscally irresponsible of the Board of Trustees to agree to such a compensation increase,” he stated in the letter.

A combination of unprecedented mid-year state budget cuts for education, increasing healthcare costs and disagreements over the exact size of the district’s bank account been have been ongoing impediments in the negotiation process which began last October.

“The counter-settlement that [TTEA] offered could add up to $700,000 in costs for the district next year,” Gemma told The Sierra Sun. “Due to the state budget, we’re already looking at barely getting COLA next year, or even having to take a cut. Therefore, we could not accept their offer.”

Kerr said while the teachers realize they are dealing with taking leftovers this year, they want reassurance that next year they will be more of a priority.

“We want them to start budgeting for us early on,” she said. “They need to start addressing the skyrocketing costs of healthcare, because as the district has its cap right now, all of the increases are falling upon the teachers’ shoulders.”

Increasing healthcare costs were a primary reason for TTEA’s rejection of the district’s original offer of a one percent increase in salary schedule with possible year-end bonuses.

“The community needs to understand that our healthcare costs are increasing at about $85 per month, which means about a 2 percent loss in wages,” Kerr said. “When the district offered us a 1 percent increase, they were, in effect, asking us to take a pay cut because we’d be paying more for insurance without being compensated for it. That is absolutely unacceptable. I’ve taught here for 22 years and in that time, I’ve never been asked to take a pay cut.”

Kerr said rates are only going to continue to go up, possibly as much as 30 percent next year, which could mean an additional $150 in health benefits costs for teachers each month.

“As a district, we already rank tenth out of 12 districts in similar financial situations, as far a health benefit compensation for employees,” she said. “There are also districts that are in similar situations of declining enrollment and similar locations that have already settled for COLA this year and agreed to COLA for next year.”

The TTUSD Board of Trustees heard similar arguments last week when more than 100 teachers showed up at the board’s meeting in Tahoe City to voice their concerns. It was standing room only in the meeting where emotions ran high on both sides and teacher commentary ate up more than an hour and a half of the clock – causing the board to miss a scheduled hearing on Measure A.

Gemma maintained that the offer that the district put forward, “extends the district to the edge of what is financially prudent.”

He also said the district is currently doing everything it can to look into the possibility of replacing its current insurance provider, Schools Insurance Group (SIG), with a company offering lower premiums.

With no agreement in sight, Gemma said he expects the state mediator to certify the district and TTEA for a fact-finding.

“If either side wants to contact the other about reaching a settlement before we go into fact-finding, we may be able to settle this before it gets to that point,” he said. “It would really be disappointing if we go into fact-finding, not only because it would be a waste of money, but also because it may take several months.”

Fact-finding is an arbitration process in which 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.

“I hope the teachers can see the commitment that this district has to its teachers,” he said. “I know that our offer doesn’t mitigate all of the pain that the economy has placed on them. The district can’t do it all, though.”