AUGUSTA — New labor contracts for Augusta Public Schools employees will cost the district about $350,000 in the next two years and already have improved morale, school and union officials said.

The school board on Wednesday unanimously approved agreements with the three units of the Augusta Education Association: custodians, support staff and teachers.

Cony High School Principal Kim Silsby publicly thanked the negotiators for the school board and union for coming to an agreement in time for the start of school on Wednesday.

“Our staff is very happy with the contract,” Silsby said. “It has made a huge difference.”

The employees have been working without contracts for a year, and their previous two-year contracts provided only small raises: a 1 percent increase each year, but no steps, association President Jeff DeJongh said. Steps are the raises that employees recieve based on their years of experience and credentials.

The new contracts restore steps and increase base pay. The salary structures work differently for each of the units, but for teachers, for example, the base salary increased from $30,603 to $32,000.

DeJongh said the increases in base pay work out to about 1 percent this year and 1 percent next year. Though the contract covers 2012-13 to 2014-15, the employees agreed not to take retroactive raises for last year.

The lack of retroactive raises made it easier for the school district to afford the new contracts, Interim Superintendent James Anastasio said. The district will be able to pay raises this year because although there is a spending freeze in place, the budget approved by the City Council and voters included some unallocated money, and the school board made further cuts to the budget after voter approval to free up more money.

Board Chairwoman Susan Campbell said she’s pleased with the outcome of the negotiations and appreciates the employees’ patience.

“We’re thrilled that the staff is happy,” she said. “We always wish we could do more, but we think it’s a fair contract, and we’re really happy.”

DeJongh said the parties began negotiating in early 2012 and ran into disagreements about health insurance and developing a system for evaluating teachers and principals, which the school district is required by state law to do this year.

The contracts maintain existing health insurance benefits, while also adding two less-expensive plans, and a steering committee already has met a few times to work on evaluations.

Negotiations were on hold for much of 2013 because of outside factors, school officials and DeJongh said.

Anastasio and Business Manager Kathy Casparius needed time to settle into the positions for which they were hired in January. Gov. Paul LePage proposed his budget about the same time, leading to budget debates that lasted the whole spring. By the time that City Council and voters approved Augusta’s local budget, it was mid-June.

Both Campbell and DeJongh said a positive, cooperative relationship has developed between the school board and employees in the past year.

DeJongh said the school board came to realize that other districts in the area had bypassed Augusta in compensating employees, and the association strongly supported the school board during budget development. He’s hopeful the new contracts will be a springboard for continued cooperation within the district.

“I’m excited because it brings staff forward, closer to area schools and closer to our value for the hard work we’ve been putting in for a lot of years without compensation,” DeJongh said.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
[email protected]