FARMINGTON — The 2020-2023 contracts for professional staff at Regional School Unit 9 were finalized Tuesday, June 8, following prolonged negotiations. The RSU 9 Board of Directors unanimously voted to approve the contracts following an extended executive session with the teacher’s bargaining unit.

We were long overdue on raising our salaries to show that we respect our special staff,” Board Chairperson Angela LeClair said in a phone interview. “We hit some bumps along the way but I think for the most part, both sides wanted it to be ratified and come to closure without mediation and both sides worked hard to make that happen.”

Mt. Blue Education Association President Doug Hodum said the negotiations “landed in a really good place for the district as a whole and for the professional staff” and that they are “happy and excited about having this behind us and feel very comfortable with the agreement that we have.” He believes the contracts bring about “very competitive wages, which is not something we have typically had in this district for a long time.” 

Since the contracts will account for the 2020-21 school year, teachers will get retroactive pay for the 2020-21 increase, LeClair said.

Hodum also said that the steps by which salaries increase for professional staff have changed from 31 to 18.

Whereas in the previous model “someone would have to be in this district almost their entire career to get to the top of the [salary] scale,” now professional staff will reach the top of the scale quicker, “their lifetime earnings would be significantly higher and their retirement would be a more reasonable retirement,” Hodum said.

The contracts will also account for a recent law that requires teachers in the state of Maine to receive a minimum starting salary of $40,000 and their salaries not remain at the minimum level for more than two years.

The Maine Education Association’s 2019 salary guide stated that teachers in RSU 9 were paid $34,900 in their first year of teaching with a bachelor’s degree, $36,900 in their first year of teaching with a master’s degree, $40,451 in their tenth year of teaching with a bachelor’s degree and $42,466 in their tenth year of teaching with a master’s degree.

Contract negotiations between the district and the district’s teacher’s association, the Mt. Blue Education Association, began in January 2020, were disrupted by the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and resumed in late spring 2020. Professional staff (such as teachers, nurses, librarians and social workers) have been working without contracts after they expired last August.

Following the start of the 2020-21 school year, the Mt. Blue Education Association disputed with the board over salary raises.

The district faced further funding loss that could affect teacher salaries and 91.3% of the 386 participating teachers and staff in the district voted they had no confidence in former Superintendent Tina Meserve, who then resigned.

In October, seven RSU 9 teachers voiced their concerns over the expired contracts and ongoing negotiations. The Franklin Journal’s Andrea Swiedom reported, “(teachers) expressed issues with a potential decrease in retirement, overworking due to the challenges of hybrid teaching and pandemic-related safety concerns.”

Even students said they felt the effects of teachers working without a contract.

LeClair said that issues over new earned paid leave (EPL) laws and salary increases brought negotiations to a standstill by January.

In February, still without contracts, Mt. Blue Education Association President Doug Hodum announced the association and the board would “move forward (on negotiations) in a more solutions-based approach.”

Hodum said “the presence of attorneys in the room in the long run turned out not to be beneficial for either side and that proved to be a significant obstacle.”

Once they used a new approach, Hodum said negotiations moved “much more quickly and smoothly” because “the people who are living in the district and doing the work in the district are the ones identifying, explaining, discussing and ultimately solving any issues that we had.”

LeClair said that interim Superintendent Monique Poulin was critical to the solution.

“(Poulin) did so much work to prepare for the negotiation meetings and learn all things related to EPL and the other pieces of the contract. She was a big reason we were able to finalize the contract,” LeClair said.

LeClair said that the board will have to be “careful” in approaching future budgets and pay raises because they feel the district cannot “afford to do those kinds of increases moving forward.” However, she is satisfied that the contracts get the district “where we need to be” in terms of “competitive wages.”

“We definitely know we can’t continue those kinds of raises moving forward beyond the contract but we have to start keeping up with the rest of the district to keep our teachers here and pay wages that they deserve,” LeClair said.

The board and teacher’s association will now focus on negotiating contracts for support staff, such as custodians, maintenance workers, bus drivers, secretaries, behavior specialists and educational technicians. Hodum anticipates the contracts, which expire at the end of June, will be finalized in the coming months before school starts in the fall.

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