The teachers union and School Administrative District 58 remain at odds, particularly over seniority and economic issues, in contract negotiations that have dragged on for almost two years.
At issue are teacher salaries, insurance benefits and layoff language, and frustration is high among staff in Phillips-based SAD 58, the union president said.
“The teachers here are very frustrated,” said Sally Beant an art teacher and president of the teachers association. “Morale is at an all time low. Not only are we going through contract negotiations but the economy is not good, meaning we are being asked to do more and more.”
Following the release of a report by a fact-finding panel earlier this month, the district is continuing the collective bargaining process with no clear end in sight, said Superintendent Brenda Stevens on Wednesday.
No date has been set yet for a meeting with a mediator that might help resolve the issues that continue to divide teachers and the school board, said Stevens.
“There is no set time line. Obviously we’d like to have this settled, but it will depend on when we can schedule common dates,” she said.
According to the fact-finding report from a neutral panel released to the media on Jan. 16, teachers are asking to maintain the percentage they pay for health insurance coverage and a restructured salary scale that would grant teachers step raises based on how long they have worked in the district.
The school board, meanwhile, is proposing pay raises for the three years of the contract, but does not want to establish a long-term step scale for salaries and is asking teachers to contribute more to their health insurance costs. They are also asking for more oversight in the administration of sick days.
“The negotiations process has been difficult for both sides and both parties feel strongly about the issues on the bargaining table. The board remains sincere in seeking a satisfactory resolution for all concerned parties,” said Stevens in a press release.
School board Chairwoman Diana Thomas said she could not comment on the negotiations.
Negotiations have been underway since 2012, when the most recent contract expired. Since then teachers have been working on a salary freeze and the district has operated under the old contract.
In 2012-13 there were 95 certified teachers in SAD 58, according to the Department of Education, although one community has withdrawn since then. The district has five schools in Avon, Phillips, Kingfield and Strong. The town of Eustis withdrew from the district in March, taking with it the Stratton Elementary School. The average salary for a teacher in SAD 58 in 2012-13 was $47,227, which was slightly less than the state average of $50,790, according to the department.
“We’re not really asking for a lot of changes, that’s why its so frustrating. We’re willing to work with the contract we already have and if there are sections where they thought there were major concerns, we’re willing to look at it, but not in a way that is harmful to teachers,” said Bean.
When the fact-finding experts concluded their report in November, they made recommendations on 16 issues that had been unresolved. Most of the recommendations have been adapted, but the board and union remain divided on three main issues — how to handle teacher layoffs, administration of sick days and salaries and health insurance, according to the release from Stevens.
“This is a difficult area to craft an agreement. Both parties have valid, if sometimes conflicting interests to protect,” according to the section of the report related to layoffs.
The board wants layoffs to not only be based on seniority, but on a teacher’s proven ability in the classroom, while teachers are asking that seniority-based layoffs stay intact. It is unclear how a teacher’s performance would be evaluated if the change were made, and Bean said it is too big of an undertaking tackle in a negotiation that has already dragged on.
“There’s no way to create a good evaluation system and implement it in less than one year. We are willing to include evaluations but feel we should hold off until a later contract,” said Bean.
Salary and insurance are also a sticking point. The board wants to offer a 4.5 percent salary increase over three years and is asking teachers to pay a greater share of health insurance costs. In the current plan, the district pays 90 percent of an individual policy and 80 percent of a family policy. The board has proposed the district continue to pay a fixed dollar amount equal to what was contributed in 2012 and ask teachers to pay cost increases above three percent of the current rate.
Stevens said the district is facing shrinking tax resources from federal, state and local government and a rise in insurance premiums. According to the press release, the cost of a family insurance plan was $15,392 in the 2006-07 school year and has now risen to $20,240. Insurance costs are controlled by the state teacher’s union, which makes it difficult for the board to anticipate and budget for insurance costs each year, she said.
According to Bean, teachers in SAD 58 already pay a higher percentage for insurance compared to other districts. The union is proposing a new pay scale that would start teachers at a $32,000 salary and then grant them a 2.5 percent increase in pay each year for 25 years.
The board is also trying to alter language surrounding the district’s sick bank, shared sick days that teachers can use if they have a serious illness. Currently, the superintendent and union president determine whether a teacher qualifies to use this benefit, but the board says that the contract is unclear about how a teacher can qualify for the benefit. The teachers are advocating for no change.
Rachel Ohm— 612-2368 [email protected]