Wichita teachers want a raise; district seeks tobacco-use testing

Steve Wentz, president of United Teachers of Wichita, says he’s “cautiously optimistic” entering into contract talks with the district this year.
Steve Wentz, president of United Teachers of Wichita, says he’s “cautiously optimistic” entering into contract talks with the district this year. File photo

Wichita teachers are starting contract talks a little more hopeful this year, after a boost in state funding and hints from district leaders that they plan to make teacher pay a budget priority.

“I’m cautiously optimistic on a number of fronts,” said Steve Wentz, president of United Teachers of Wichita, which represents about 4,200 teachers and other certified staff.

“Obviously, there has got to be movement on compensation. … That (budget) gives us hope, and I think both sides are happy about that.”

Obviously, there has got to be movement on compensation. … That (budget) gives us hope, and I think both sides are happy about that.

Steve Wentz, United Teachers of Wichita president

The union and school board exchanged initial contract proposals Wednesday, though it is unclear when negotiations will begin. The process, normally underway in the spring, was delayed while officials awaited action by state lawmakers on school funding.

Wichita, the state’s largest school district, stands to receive about $17 million more in general state aid under a new school finance formula. The Kansas Supreme Court is reviewing the plan and is expected to decide in coming weeks whether it is constitutional.

Wentz said teams plan to move forward with negotiations for a contract set to start Aug. 1.

Here is a look at what United Teachers of Wichita and district representatives are proposing:

Union proposal

The union is asking for a 10 percent raise and wants all teachers at their correct positions on a salary schedule that rewards additional experience and education, known as “steps” and “tracks.”

Union leaders have proposed reducing professional development time, increasing planning time, negotiating changes to the teacher evaluation process, and prohibiting before- or after-school meetings on election days.

The union also has proposed a new clause requiring that the district “provide a safe workplace that protects teachers from physical and emotional violence, sexual harassment, and other abuse by students.”

In April, a union official told school board members that student behavior in Wichita is disrupting classrooms and driving some teachers out of the profession.

Data obtained by The Eagle shows that the number of suspensions, detentions and trips to the principal’s office have increased substantially in Wichita schools over the past four years. The trend is especially dramatic in elementary schools, where the number of discipline incidents increased more than 53 percent.

Union leaders also are proposing an idea, floated by a Wichita teacher last fall, that would allow teachers to skip the magnet lottery or special transfer process with their children and enroll the child “in a district school of their choosing.”

Wentz, the union president, said teacher workload continues to be an issue and likely will come up in contract talks. Last year, the union organized a first-ever “Contract Day,” during which teachers were urged to work only the hours required in their contract – no more, no less – to illustrate how much they do during off-hours.

“They’ve shown a willingness to work with us on that,” Wentz said. “But the conversation is far from over.”

District proposal

A one-page proposal from the Wichita school board notes three items in addition to wages and workload that the district hopes to negotiate.

The district has proposed charging all employees and spouses on the district’s health plan a $100 monthly premium unless they test negative for tobacco use during an annual physical or through a district-sponsored test. Currently, teachers sign a certified statement verifying whether or not they use tobacco products, and tobacco users pay the monthly fee.

The board proposal also seeks tougher attendance standards for teachers, though it does not spell out specific measures.

Shannon Krysl, head of human resources, said the district would like to explore measures similar to those in its contract with the Service Employees International Union, which covers classified employees such as para-educators and custodians.

Wichita teachers get 12 days of paid leave per year. Even so, some teachers “miss more days than they actually work,” Krysl said, leaving the district scrambling to cover their classrooms.

The district hopes to address excessive absenteeism that is not protected by an approved leave plan or by law, she said.

“It’s a huge challenge getting substitutes, especially at the last minute,” she said. “It is a problem.”

The district also has proposed some changes to the observation process for underperforming teachers, and a requirement that lesson plans follow guidelines from the Marzano teacher evaluation system.

Mike Rodee, president of the Wichita school board, said it’s hard to know what the district can do for teachers until more details are known about state funding.

Board members likely won’t see a detailed budget until Aug. 7, two weeks before they’re scheduled to approve it.

“I’d like to see teachers get a raise, for sure,” Rodee said. “The rest of it will depend on what we can and can’t do and how we can most effectively spend our money.”

Tom Powell, the district’s general counsel and lead negotiator, said he hopes the teams can come to agreement quickly this year.

Last year, negotiations lasted several months and required help from a federal mediator. A contract approved last fall included a $500 one-time payment for teachers but raised health insurance costs for most employees.

“We think it’s going to be a better year than it’s been in the past,” Powell said. “We’re going to have some money, but we’re not going to have enough money.”

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