Wichita teacher contract talks break down again

Steve Wentz began a three-year term as president of United Teachers of Wichita in June.
Steve Wentz began a three-year term as president of United Teachers of Wichita in June. File photo

Negotiations between the Wichita school district and its teachers union have broken down again, after a mediation session this week ended without an agreement on a contract for the current school year.

Superintendent John Allison, in a statement posted on the district’s website, said United Teachers of Wichita “continues to make demands for additional money that our district simply does not have available.”

Union officials, meanwhile, pointed to “a huge disconnect between teachers and management” that is hampering negotiations.

“At the time we need the Board’s support the most, they are turning their backs on us,” union officials said in a statement sent to its members Wednesday. “We need to take a stand and do what’s right in the big picture, for our profession, and ultimately our students.”

Representatives for the district and the teachers union met with a federal mediator Tuesday after reaching an impasse in negotiations over a new contract.

The major point of contention was what the district had proposed to be a one-time, 1 percent lump sum payment to teachers, estimated to cost $2.1 million.

Union leaders proposed that, in lieu of the lump sum payment, the district unfreeze longevity pay – annual raises teachers are supposed to receive beginning in their 15th year – and lower health insurance premiums by about $55 a month.

The union also wants health insurance premium amounts to be in the contract and part of annual negotiations. The union’s proposal was estimated to cost an additional $1 million, though union officials this week said the amount is less – $770,000.

Allison said the district, which recently trimmed $22 million from its budget and needs a $6 million to $12 million boost to its health insurance reserves, simply doesn’t have the money.

“Despite union contention that it’s ‘just a million more dollars,’ in an uncertain economic and political climate that has created a precarious school funding scenario, meeting union financial demands would be simply reckless,” the superintendent said in his statement.

According to Allison’s statement, the district offered during mediation that teachers eligible for longevity movement receive a one-time payment equal to their longevity movement, but that longevity would remain frozen. Other teachers would receive a $500, one-time payment, along with some raises linked to additional experience and education, known as “steps” and “tracks.”

Allison said a permanent adjustment to teacher salaries or “any additional financial commitments beyond the 2016-17 school year raise the potential for layoffs, concerns about future compensation, and stability of the district’s health plan.”

The union team responded that it “understands the state’s financial troubles,” but that teacher raises should be a district priority.

“What it would have required is for John Allison to prioritize the budget so teachers come first. Wow! What a concept!” the union said in its statement. “That is absolutely unacceptable to John Allison.”

Union officials added: “In the 7 years since 2008, only 2 years have had an increase to the salary schedule. During that same time, the Superintendent’s compensation has gone up dramatically. It appears he is the only veteran educator being taken care of.”

The Wichita school board voted in July 2013 to extend Allison’s contract and increase his financial package by nearly 7 percent. That year, the district began contributing an additional 6.9 percent of Allison’s salary – about $16,000 a year – into the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System on his behalf.

Allison’s base salary is $224,910. But his gross pay last year was $264,148, according to district documents.

In addition to his base salary, Allison receives a $750-a-month car and mileage allowance and $500 a month for “professional, civic and incidental expenses.”

David Schauner, general counsel for the Kansas National Education Association, said the next step in contract talks after mediation fails is fact-finding.

In that process, a third-party fact finder assigned by the Kansas Department of Labor holds a hearing during which each side presents its case. The fact finder considers evidence, compiles a report and makes a non-binding recommendation to the school board.

The two sides also could continue regular negotiations, Schauner said. It was unclear Thursday whether the Wichita district or teachers union planned to request fact-finding or return to the table.

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias