Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Pay raise deal offers relief for teachers

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 10/16/2013

Ottawa teachers were breathing a little easier Tuesday, Megan Morris said.

Morris, president of the Ottawa Education Association, said the school board’s proposal Monday night of a 0.5 percent raise in base pay for all teachers, plus step and column movement on the district’s salary grid for qualifying teachers, was the reason for the collective sigh of relief.

Ottawa teachers were breathing a little easier Tuesday, Megan Morris said.

Morris, president of the Ottawa Education Association, said the school board’s proposal Monday night of a 0.5 percent raise in base pay for all teachers, plus step and column movement on the district’s salary grid for qualifying teachers, was the reason for the collective sigh of relief.

The school board and teachers union had been at odds over the education association’s proposed 0.5 percent raise in base pay. The school board had been unwilling to commit to the raise, because of financial uncertainty tied to state aid, district administrative officials and school board members had said. Negotiations had stalled to the point the district had declared an impasse in September.

What changed?

A large number of Ottawa students who qualified for free-and-reduced lunches could generate an additional $279,000 in state aid for the school district, Brian Kraus, assistant superintendent, told the school board Monday night.

“We have all of our unaudited numbers back [from the official Sept. 20 enrollment count], and if we are able to retain the high-risk weighting that we got for exceeding 50 percent on free-and-reduced lunches ... that increases our weighting for that particular category from 0.7 FTE [full-time equivalent] to 1.05 FTE, which is a very significant difference,” Kraus said. “If that weighting holds after the audit, that would generate approximately $279,000 in extra funding.”

Kraus told board members 50.2 percent, or 1,200 of 2,390.7 students, qualify for free-and-reduced lunches, based on full-time equivalent weighting numbers. Kindergartners count as a half student under the full-time equivalent formula, as one example for the fractional count.

“I’m not sure if the 0.7 student eats lunch or not?” Kraus said, to laughter from the more than 50 teachers and other community members in the audience. “Apparently they don’t.”

Each year, the district’s enrollment numbers are audited at the state level, which usually results in the district gaining or losing a few students. At 50.2 percent, Ottawa’s margin for error is slim, Kraus explained.

If Ottawa loses six students as a result of the audit, that would drop the district to 49.9 percent in the free-and-reduced lunches category, which would cause the district to lose about $135,000 of that additional state aid, Kraus said.

“So it’s basically an all or nothing thing,” Susan Ward, school board member, said.

Kraus said that unfortunately the weighting scale contains no steps between 1.05 and 0.7 — meaning the district would either be $279,000 ahead if it stays above 50 percent, or could see $135,000 shaved off that sum if the district dropped below the threshold.

Either way, Kraus said, the net gain would more than offset the funds needed to offer teachers a 0.5 percent raise and cover the additional funds awarded to teachers for step and column movement on the pay grid.  

Most public schools in the U.S. — including Ottawa — employ a salary grid that recognizes years of service and the amount of education as factors in determining the pay of individual teachers. The salary schedule is a grid of rows and columns, with the rows down the side being increasing years of service, called “steps,” and the columns across the top being increasing education credentials, such as bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees.

David White, school board president, asked Kraus if the proposed raise was sustainable.

“Even if we drop below the 50 percent threshold, because of the number of new free-and-reduced students we have, we’re pretty much guaranteed $142,000 [in additional state funding],” Kraus said. “The step/column and 0.5 percent raise is $135,771, so that is sustainable, even if we were to drop below the 50 percent.”

If the audited numbers hold true, Kraus also recommended the board give each licensed staff person a $500 stipend for the 2013-2014 year.

“The reason we would like to suggest a stipend instead of anything additional on the base is because we are precariously close to dropping below that 50 percent line,” Kraus said. “Anything above the 0.5 percent on the base would not be sustainable.”

Kraus, who has been involved in the contract negotiation process, recommended the $500 stipend only be awarded if the district stays above 50 percent free-and-reduced lunches.

“If we drop to 49.9 percent, we lose $135,000 [of the increase in state aid],” he said.

Dennis George, school board member, made a motion to authorize the board’s negotiating team to meet with education association negotiators and offer the step and column movement and 0.5 percent base raise, as well as negotiate up to a $500 stipend for each licensed staff member if the audited figures remain in place.

“If the dollars come in, we want to offer the $500 [stipend],” George said. “If the money is there, we want to share the money with the staff. Again, we can’t give that away until the dollars are in the bank, because the audit is what causes the extra dollars to arrive here to our district. We want to share it when it does [arrive].”

The board voted 7-0 to authorize the negotiating team to make the offer to the education association’s representatives, to applause from the audience.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t step up here and say thank you very much for the action you took earlier for reopening negotiations for coming forward with another proposal,” HJ Heistand, UniServ director with the Kansas National Education Association, said. Heistand attended the last negotiation session and mediation session. “We appreciate your efforts, we appreciate your analysis of the budget and we really appreciate the offer that you brought forward tonight.”

Lynda Alderman, a retired district teacher and current school board member, addressed the teachers in the audience after the vote.

“All I want to say right now is thank you all for the hard work you do, for ignoring your families over the kids in your classroom, thinking about how you’re going to change lesson plans while you’re drying your hair in the morning,” Alderman said. “Thank you. Because no one ever tells you thank you, or very few people tell you thank you, and I know how hard you work, and I do thank you for the job you do.”

The two negotiating teams plan to meet tonight, education association president Morris said. If the talks go as anticipated, Morris said, the board’s proposal could be put to the district’s teachers for a vote Friday morning.

“I was very pleased they would consider new information and new numbers,” Morris said of the school board. “I was pleased that they would use that new information to reconsider our proposal. We felt what we were asking for was fair all along. This works for everybody, now that they feel the offer is sustainable. I definitely appreciated the offer of the additional $500 [stipend].”

Morris is hopeful the contract would be formally approved by teachers and ratified by the school board soon, she said.

“It’s not good for morale for teachers to go into the middle of October without a contract,” she said. “I think this will be a big relief on everybody to get this done. The negotiating teams have been meeting since March. It has been a long journey, and it will be nice when everybody can be rest assured that they have a contract.”

The bump in pay for step and column movement also is important to teachers who spent the summer furthering their education, using funds out of their own pockets, she said.

“Finishing this will certainly be in everybody’s best interest,” Morris said. “I have some teachers who are very relieved.”

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