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Pay cuts, short weeks part of teacher talks

Teacher pay cuts and a four-day school week are among proposals being floated as the Wichita school district enters into teacher contract negotiations.

Many teachers got their first look this week at what the school board and United Teachers of Wichita representatives are proposing. Talks begin March 9 for a contract set to begin Aug. 1.

The district's proposals include a four-day school week, which could save the district transportation and energy costs as it faces an estimated $30 million budget shortfall.

District leaders also are proposing freezing teacher pay at 2008 levels or cutting it by 1 percent, reducing the number of contract days, requiring more detailed lesson plans and cutting 10 minutes from teachers' lunch.

The union will ask for a 3 percent pay raise, more planning time and fewer work hours outside the classroom, including in-service days.

"Teachers understand that these are tough economic times," said union president Larry Landwehr.

"We also understand that we have had the same salary for three years and bills are still coming in, bills are increasing. ... We're trying to make do with what we have."

Board president Connie Dietz would not comment on specific proposals but said a third straight year of cuts in state aid means "everything is on the table" as the board and union start contract talks.

"I assume everyone knows by now that the state is in severe financial crisis," Dietz said. "I don't anticipate a windfall of money for next year, so I think that is obviously an overriding factor in negotiations."

A four-day school week was discussed last year as a possible way to cut costs and "whispered about" during contract talks the year before, Landwehr said.

"I think it's a concept they would like to look at, and we're open to discussing that," he said. "The trick would be selling it to the public."

Superintendent John Allison said last spring that a Tuesday-to-Friday school week wouldn't significantly reduce salaries — the district's biggest expense — because it would require about the same amount of hours in school.

School days would be longer, which could throw off bus routes or extend the start or end of school schedules to extremes, he said at the time. Leaders also worried that having children off school on Mondays would create increased demand for latchkey programs and hurt students who receive free or reduced-price meals.

Dietz, the board president, said switching to a four-day school week or altering the school calendar would be "a huge deal for families," but that the district has to explore all options.

"We won't go into any kind of decision without careful consideration," she said.

According to union officials, the board also is proposing a requirement for more detailed lesson plans that address content and literacy objectives and show how each lesson correlates to district and state standards.

Landwehr said that would require significantly more planning time or after-hours work.

"If they want us to do more, we need more time to do that," he said. "Our teachers realize when we come into education that it's not a 9-to-5 job. We'll have work before, we'll have work after. But it's also not a 24/7 job.

"When you're asked to do more for the same amount of time and money, pretty much you get to the point where you can't do it anymore."

The current contract requires teachers to make lesson plans available to the principal upon request. The plans must be based on standards but "are required only in sufficient detail to provide guidance to the teacher" or substitute.

The current two-year contract, approved by Wichita teachers in 2009, froze salaries and charged health insurance premiums to teachers who did not attend four wellness activities in 16 months.

The time teachers spend before school once a week to confer with colleagues — known as professional learning communities — was cut in half, to about 11 hours a year.

The contract also stopped the additional pay teachers received for experience and education, known as "steps" and "tracks."

Prior to 2009, the district had increased teacher compensation by more than 22 percent over three years, including salary increases, compensation for additional time worked and increased support for health insurance.

Starting salary for a Wichita teacher is $37,998. Add in benefits, and it reaches $45,776, according to the Kansas Association of School Boards.

Dietz said she hopes for a reasonable compromise as the district and union begin negotiations.

"The board values every person that works for the district," she said. "We value what they do. We know that their jobs are difficult.... We have great empathy for that.

"At the same time, we also have to deal with the reality of our financial situation, so how we walk that fine line is what's at issue."

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