Wichita teachers, school district begin contract talks

04/11/2012 5:00 AM

08/05/2014 8:28 PM

Teacher pay, workload, dress codes and attendance are among the topics at issue in this year’s contract negotiations between the Wichita school district and its teachers.

Representatives for the school board and the United Teachers of Wichita started talks recently for a contract set to begin Aug. 1. The union represents nearly 4,000 teachers.

District leaders have proposed freezing teacher pay at 2008 levels, requiring more detailed lesson plans, establishing guidelines for professional dress and getting tougher on teachers who are chronically absent.

The union is asking for a 3 percent salary increase and a return to raises – plus back pay – for additional education or experience, known as steps and tracks. It also seeks fewer work hours outside the classroom, including professional development days.

“It’s been four years since we’ve had a raise in Wichita, and the Legislature hasn’t been very cooperative,” said Greg Jones of the Kansas National Education Association, who is leading talks on behalf of the union.

“At the same time, the workload is just overwhelming. It’s an avalanche of work, and we just need (the district) to at least recognize that and be willing to do something.”

Superintendent John Allison said during school attendance boundary discussions in January that the district “will have to look at compensation … in order to attract and retain high-quality teachers,” saying it was one reason officials opted to close five schools this year.

But any pay raise will be a challenge, he said, because of repeated reductions in state per-pupil funding and increased costs for health coverage, utilities and more.

Tom Powell, the school board’s attorney, said, “There’s sympathy with not just the teachers but all employees, and the fact that nobody’s gotten a raise in four years.”

“We understand that’s been a hardship,” Powell said Wednesday. “I think the attitude of the board is that they would like to do something for the employees, but I think it’s all with a little bit of caution because of where we are financially.”

The budget the Wichita school board approved last summer included nearly $28 million in cuts because of a shortfall in state aid.

Jones, the union representative, said he recognizes budget challenges, but that “we have a lot of teachers that are in some real dire financial straits, and it’s really a disgrace.

“We represent heroes in this community and they’re treated horribly, and a lot of that has to do with our politicians,” he said.

Union and district representatives didn’t address teacher pay during a two-hour session Wednesday, but the meeting had some tense moments nonetheless.

Mary Whiteside, the district’s director of human resources, presented a proposal for new attendance standards that would establish a series of disciplinary actions for teachers who are chronically absent for reasons other than disability, family leave or other “protected” reasons.

“Is this a significant problem?” Jones asked.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s one or two (teachers), it’s still affecting those kids in those classes. … It’s about what’s best for students,” Powell said.

Later in the meeting, Jones told the board representatives: “We’re pretty concerned about what’s good for students as well, so you don’t need to tell us.”

“I think our perceptions may be different,” Powell said.

The teams discussed another perennial contract issue as well: proposed guidelines for professional dress for teachers.

Powell said teacher attire remains a concern for some principals and board members.

“A lot of principals mention teachers that come year-round dressed in shorts and flip-flops, and we don’t think that kind of dress is appropriate,” he said.

“When people in the community see teachers dressed that way, it reflects not only on those teachers, but reflects on all teachers and ultimately the district.”

Union representatives agreed to put together a committee of teachers to discuss dress guidelines.

“We have some concerns … about how far they want to go,” Jones said after the meeting. “We’re willing to explore and possibly come up with some agreements. … It will be very controversial with many teachers.”

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