Wichita school board approves contract with service workers

A new contract between the Wichita school district and its service workers freezes pay and hints at possible health care cost increases in coming years, union officials said this week.

The school board this week approved the 2015-16 contract with the Service Employees International Union Local 513. Its bargaining unit includes more than 2,000 classified school district employees, including para-educators, custodians, clerical staff and food service employees.

A preamble of the contract, approved by union members earlier this month, includes a clause that says health care premiums may be renegotiated if the district’s health care reserve fund falls below $18 million – more than double last year’s threshold of $8.5 million.

The district, which is self-insured, currently has about $19.5 million in its health care reserve fund.

But because the health fund is dwindling rapidly, service workers may have to start paying health care premiums in the near future, said Esau Freeman, local business representative for the union.

“We’ve been told flat out, ‘That’s something you’re going to have to find a way to pay next year,’ ” Freeman said.

Union officials said that could cost each service employee about $500 a year, depending on the job type and number of hours worked.

“These people don’t make a whole lot of money anyway,” Freeman said. “The tighter your budget is, the more those things can really impact your life in a negative way.”

A district official said the figure was changed in the service employees contract to match the district’s agreement with United Teachers of Wichita. The health reserve fund threshold in that contract has been set at $18 million for several years.

Last year’s service employee contract included a 2 percent salary increase for service workers, similar to the one negotiated for Wichita teachers, as well as raises for additional education, licenses or certificates.

Freeman also expressed frustration over a pilot program to use privately contracted bus drivers as lunchtime custodians at 16 elementary schools. He said union officials were not told about the program, which began last month and was approved by school board members this week.

He said the district should have considered offering the lunchtime shifts to custodians or para-educators wanting to work additional hours.

“I think our custodial staff … feels very hurt and disrespected because they were not informed that this was even an option,” Freeman said. “We do have a great concern about jobs being taken or people working in a place that could affect our members.”

District officials said last week they opted to contract with First Student, a private company, at some elementary schools to cut costs and free up custodians to work later shifts. They plan to evaluate the program in December before deciding whether to continue or expand it.

Darren Muci, director of operations, said the pilot project is not part of a plan to privatize custodial services on a larger scale.

Freeman said he hopes that’s the case.

“My hope is that we go back to the drawing board with this and really look at employing staff that are already in the buildings,” Freeman said.

“Many of our people are hurting for extra hours, and if we’re going to be expected to pick up this insurance premium (in future years), we’re going to have to find a way to make those extra monies.”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.