Education

Wichita teachers, school district at impasse on contract talks

Steve Wentz, right, president of United Teachers of Wichita, and Keith Welty, a member of the union’s negotiating team, address teachers Wednesday. After a brief negotiation session, the district and union declared an impasse and will seek federal mediation to settle the contract.
Steve Wentz, right, president of United Teachers of Wichita, and Keith Welty, a member of the union’s negotiating team, address teachers Wednesday. After a brief negotiation session, the district and union declared an impasse and will seek federal mediation to settle the contract. The Wichita Eagle

The Wichita school district will seek federal mediation – and closed-door sessions – to settle a contract dispute with its teachers over salaries and other issues.

Representatives for the district and the local teachers union declared an impasse after a brief negotiation session Wednesday evening. Neither side knew when a mediator would be appointed.

In an updated proposal, district officials offered teachers a salary and benefits package similar to the one in a tentative deal with service employees, which was announced Tuesday.

The offer included a 3.75 percent salary increase, along with some steps, tracks and longevity pay and no increases to health plan premiums. District officials said the offer would increase the average Wichita teacher’s pay by about 5 percent, at a cost to the district of nearly $15 million.

The offer also calls for a return to a longer school year – 190 work days for teachers instead of 175 – with shorter school days.

Steve Wentz, president of United Teachers of Wichita, said his group sought a 5 percent raise along with steps, tracks and longevity pay. He also pressed district officials to direct at least 67 percent of any additional state funding toward teacher compensation, saying the contract covers that portion of district employees.

“What I’m saying is, whatever new money the Kansas Supreme Court directs our way, we just want our fair share of that,” Wentz said.

Tom Powell, general counsel and lead negotiator for the Wichita school district, said the board “will not negotiate the budget in any way, shape or form.” He said a pledge to direct a percentage of future funding to teacher pay would tie the district’s hands and, “I don’t have any kind of authorization to do that.”

Minutes later the teams declared an impasse – a common occurrence during negotiations the past several years.

Early in the process, teacher contract negotiations are public, open meetings. When the teams declare an impasse and request mediation, those sessions are closed to anyone other than the mediator and members of the negotiation teams.

Teachers currently are working under the terms of their 2016-17 contract.

Addressing about 30 teachers who attended Wednesday’s negotiation session, Wentz said he recognized that teachers may feel anxious about the contract.

“Right now this is where we are,” he said. “But what I can tell you is: Numbers matter. … We’ve got to communicate to people that we’re in it together.”

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

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