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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Wichita school district, teachers union reach tentative contract agreement

By Suzanne Perez Tobias
The Wichita Eagle

The Wichita school district has reached a tentative contract agreement with the local teachers union, ending what many described as one of the most adversarial negotiation seasons in recent history.

District and union officials announced terms of the tentative one-year contract in a joint news conference Tuesday. Highlights include:

• A 1 percent increase to the salary schedule;

• One step on the salary schedule for years of experience;

• Adjustment on the schedule based on additional education, known as tracks;

Teachers would move to the appropriate place on the longevity schedule, but will not receive back pay;

• An agreement on professional dress for teachers;

• No changes to the employee health plan. As before, employee premiums are waived if they participate in a certain number of wellness activities.

• Converting one teacher in-service day to a classroom work day before school starts in August;

• Early dismissal for teachers on end-of-semester and end-of-year grading days if grades are submitted by noon;

• Two study committees comprising teachers and administrators — one to focus on professional development and another on teacher evaluations.

Superintendent John Allison said the agreement amounts to a 4 percent increase in salary, benefits and reduced work time. Its price tag is about $8.6 million, he said — an amount that already has been factored into the district’s $628 million budget.

Teachers will vote on the contract after they report to work Aug. 7. Wichita school board members are expected to vote at their next meeting Aug. 13.

“Our board has been committed to increasing our employee compensation to all of our employee groups, and we think this is a very fair and comparable package,” said board president Lynn Rogers.

“This agreement should continue to keep Wichita public school teachers in the top five statewide when it comes to average starting salaries as well as district averages.”

Randy Mousley, president of United Teachers of Wichita, said the union “does not agree with every decision and strategy from the district, but we were able to come to an agreement.

“There are issues facing teachers and the district that will require us to work together, and we will.”

The tentative agreement includes the first salary increase in four years for the district’s teachers. In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s agreement, teachers had rallied outside school board meetings in support of better working conditions and an end to the salary freeze.

Mousley, the union president, said teachers “have made sacrifices and they’ve kept doing outstanding work, and we have to acknowledge that.”

The increases in salary, longevity, steps and tracks “will put a small dent into the financial sacrifice teachers and their families have made to help promote the mission of USD 259,” he said.

Under the proposed contract, the starting salary for Wichita teachers would be $38,378, district officials said. The average annual salary, not including benefits, would be $52,109.

District administration, which includes principals and assistant principals, received a 2 percent salary increase and one step on the salary schedule for years of experience, officials said.

"All employee groups have been offered equitable compensation packages and have been allowed to decide how to allocate the resources," Arensman said in an e-mail Tuesday.

For instance, she said, the district's recent contract agreement with the service employees union features a 3.5 percent raise but freezes steps and longevity. The proposed teachers contract has a 1 percent raise but additions to steps, tracks and longevity.

The agreement also includes new guidelines for professional dress, a measure district officials have pushed for years.

The current contract states: “Teachers will project a positive professional image while dressing in an appropriate manner as determined by the teacher.”

The tentative agreement specifies several new dress standards and requires adherence during teaching days and parent-teacher conferences.

According to the guidelines, teachers’ clothing should be “modest, neat and clean” and appropriate “for the curriculum being taught and the activity to be engaged in that day.”

The tentative contract prohibits revealing tops, too-short bottoms, torn or frayed jeans and clothing that features large-letter advertising, inappropriate language or drugs or alcohol.

First or second violations of the standards will result in verbal warnings. The agreement does not specify what would happen in the event of a subsequent violation, but district spokeswoman Susan Arensman said, “After the third violation, the employee is subject to other appropriate disciplinary action.”

Mousley said the issue of consequences was “left open intentionally because neither UTW or administration have any idea how this could go.”

“Dress should never be our primary focus,” he said. “The education of students is.”

Rogers, the board president, said the changes aren’t likely to affect many employees because “the vast majority of teachers do dress professionally.”

But with new guidelines, “It will be very clear what is professional dress and what is not,” Rogers said. “So I think it gives the administrator and the teacher the ability to discuss it.

“It also sends a great message to the community as to how important a teacher is, I think, by the way they dress.”

Mousley said the guidelines are “just good common-sense stuff. … Administrators now will have more latitude in having those professional discussions if there are teachers that aren’t quite portraying the image that we really need.”

Several issues discussed at length during negotiations did not end up in the tentative agreement. They included a district request for more detailed lesson plans and a proposal that teachers be required to contact each student’s parent or guardian at least once per grading period.

“That’s just part of the ebb and flow of the negotiation process,” Allison said. “Both of us have the same end goal in mind, and there are some complicated issues that we work through.”

In coming months, a committee of teachers and district officials will explore professional development as it relates to in-service days, lesson plans and the district’s implementation of Common Core Standards.

Another committee will study how to develop and implement new teacher evaluations. A key component of requires the state to evaluate teachers and school leaders based at least in part on student achievement.

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com.

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