Teachers, Wichita school district spar over contract details

In heated contract talks Wednesday, representatives for the Wichita school district and the teachers union accused each other of offering insincere proposals and not doing enough to try to reach a compromise.

Tom Powell, general counsel for the district, presented a breakdown of what the union’s proposal would cost the district — about $48 million in salaries and benefits and another $32 million in indirect costs, according to the analysis.

Union officials called the estimate, generated by the district’s budget office, “a work of fiction” and “absolutely ridiculous.”

United Teachers of Wichita 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 professional development days, a proposal that district officials so far have rejected.

“All we get are proposals to increase workload, and you’re not engaging us in any conversation regarding how we can make things better,” said Greg Jones, lead negotiator for the union.

“We have things we think … would make teachers able to do their jobs better and would show some appreciation on the part of the board, and it’s being met with deafening silence.”

Since talks began in March, the sides have made little progress toward reaching agreement on the contract, which is set to begin Aug. 1.

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

During Wednesday’s negotiation session, Powell said repeated cuts in state funding, combined with rising costs for health care, utilities, fuel and other expenses, have limited the district’s ability to raise teacher pay.

“What’s happening in Topeka doesn’t look like it’s going to be a significant increase, if any,” Powell said. “Plus we’re staring at the face of a tax cut that could really be devastating.”

Jones replied: “I would think the Board of Education’s position … would be more a position of, ‘Thank you, employees, for what you’ve sacrificed over the years’ … as opposed to, ‘Hey, you’re being greedy.’ ”

“I don’t think we’re saying you’re being greedy,” Powell said. “But everything is tight. … It’s not the board that’s cost the employees, it’s the state and the cuts that have been made to school finance.

“That’s just the facts as they exist. Everybody feels bad about that,” he said. “I don’t think … anybody on the board likes where we are today. And I pretty much resent what you just said, because it’s not true.”

Jones then pointed to another option: increasing the district’s local-option budget. The last increase was in 2007, when the Wichita school board raised the local property tax rate by 2 mills to help fund a 4-percent raise for teachers.

“How can you sit here and criticize us and criticize the legislature … and talk about cutting all these programs and positions” without considering raising taxes, Jones asked.

Powell, visibly angry, said, “I think what you’re doing is playing to the press right now with that kind of statement.”

“How’s that playing to the press? Is it not true?” Jones said.

“That’s what you’re doing,” said Powell. “You’re going to attempt to criticize the board for not raising the (local option budget). … And in fact, if they do, it would not cover anywhere near what the losses have been.”

After the meeting, Jones said cutting four days of professional development from the contract and other proposals to reduce teachers’ workload would “cost the district nothing.”

He added that teachers should get a raise even if it means raising local property taxes.

The district has “seen savings from teachers who have gone to school and paid their own money” without receiving step or track raises, Jones said. “We understand it’s tough times, but for them not to do everything they possibly can is just unacceptable.”

Powell said cutting the number of professional development days would affect students because that’s when teachers learn to implement building and districtwide reforms.

Regarding raising the local option budget, Powell said, “That’s really a question for the board.

“I think that teachers seem to think it’s the board’s fault that this has happened, and I think it’s the state legislature and all the cuts that have occurred that have put us in this position,” he said.

“I think that UTW and the district and the board should keep that in mind and really remember where the problem is and not be blaming each other.”

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