MCEA, board differ over pay increase

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Pay and insurance were negotiated Monday by the Board of Education and the Marshall County Education Association, but no agreement was reached.

The full school board will be updated on the progress of negotiations at their November meeting tomorrow night by Craig Michael, the team leader for the board.

The MCEA had asked for a six percent raise for teachers, and a guarantee that 83 percent of their insurance premiums would be paid by the board.

Monday night, the Board's negotiating team made their counter-proposal. Budget director Janet Wiles had prepared two schedules, one showing a raise of $875, and another showing a raise of about 2.1 percent.

The numbers work out almost the same, but the fixed dollar amount is more advantageous to the entry-level teachers, while the fixed percentage favors the more experienced ones. This is because teachers are paid on a scale that takes into account their years of experience and their academic qualifications.

Whichever schedule is implemented, it would use up all the $400,000 that was left in the budget for good-faith negotiations.

"Boy, you sure know how to clear a room," joked Board member Curt Denton as the teachers left the room to caucus.

Led by negotiators Kathy Stapleton and Louis Scheuchenzuber they soon returned to ask questions and talk about insurance.

Stapleton made a heartfelt appeal for more money for the teachers, saying, "We certainly understand the state of affairs, but we were told in good times there was no money. Now times are bad and there's no money either. When is it our time? Our teachers pay the same bills as everyone else in the county."

"I hear what you're saying," responded Michael, adding, "We're not trying to mislead or stall you; we want to focus on what will make a difference in the classroom."

The MCEA definitely wanted a guaranteed percentage of their insurance premium paid.

"If we don't consider a percentage, it may be a hard sell," said Stapleton. Teachers used to get 83 percent of their insurance paid, then a few years ago former director John David Pierce asked them to go down to 80 percent. Now the board is paying a dollar amount that works out to be about 75 percent.

The MCEA also wanted to know about the fund balance. By law, it is three percent of the school system's projected expenditure, currently $1.1 million. The MCEA thought the fund balance might be spent this year on teacher raises, but this does not appear to be one of the "unforeseen situations" - like a tornado hitting a school, or the price of fuel for the school buses doubling in the middle of the year - that the fund balance is designed to cover.

The teachers caucused again and came back with their written counter-proposal: 82 percent of insurance premium paid and a four percent increase in salary.

"We're showing good faith in our bargaining," said Stapleton, asking the Board to use the fund balance one time only. "This is going to be revisited in a year," she assured them. "You're not signing your life away long-term."

Michael said it was a starting point and they could have more discussion on using the fund balance, but he added, "Locking in a percentage on insurance will be difficult to make happen."

"Why?" asked Stapleton.

"To commit to paying a percentage of something over which you have no control would not be a good deal," explained Michael.

Scheuchenzuber pointed out that many surrounding counties have percentage deals, and so do some local businesses like the First Commerce Bank.

"Have all these other counties made bad decisions?" he asked.

"I'm not going to answer that," said Michael.

"They're making the decision to retain their employees," said Scheuchenzuber bitterly. "We're not only losing teachers, we're not getting new teachers applying. Marshall County schools used to be in the top 25 percent in everything we did, and we're not any more. I think insurance is one of the issues."

"We'll be as flexible as we can be," Michael assured them. "We will definitely consider it, but from past discussions it was clear that the Board did not want to agree a percentage, though they will do everything they can to help with insurance premiums."

"The problem is that the money comes from the tax payer," Michael said. "We'll have to work together to sell them on the kind of progress we need to make on our compensation. We have to focus on where we're going as a school system."

"We don't doubt your earnestness," Stapleton assured him as the meeting came to a close.

The next negotiating session is scheduled for 5 p.m Tuesday, Nov. 25.