Wichita teacher contract talks set to start amid budget concerns

(File photo)
(File photo) File photo

The Wichita school district will enter into teacher contract negotiations with questions still swirling over next year’s budget and leaders hinting strongly that teachers may be asked to pay more for health insurance.

Superintendent John Allison said the district plans to be frank about budget concerns during negotiations, which will take place as leaders are considering an expansive list of potential cuts.

“I think we’ll be very upfront: ‘This is Option A, if you’ll work with us. If not, then it will be Option B,’ ” Allison told school board members recently.

“We haven’t started that process yet, but I see just … explaining how it is, and then we’ll see where it goes from there.”

Teachers got their first look this past week at what the school board and United Teachers of Wichita representatives are proposing. Talks are expected to begin next month for a contract set to start Aug. 1.

Initial proposals

The district’s proposal includes increases to health insurance premiums and adding new categories of premiums in an attempt to boost the district’s self-funded health insurance reserves.

Jim Freeman, chief financial officer for Wichita schools, said health plan reserves have been dwindling and will need a boost of at least $6 million to remain viable. He already has proposed instituting premiums for retirees and a mandatory point-of-service health plan, which will require employees to designate an in-network doctor as their primary care physician.

District leaders also are proposing regular evaluations for teachers beyond their fourth year and new attendance standards with “progressive discipline” to address excessive absenteeism.

The union is asking for higher starting salaries for teachers and a return to a salary schedule that rewards additional experience and education, known as “steps” and “tracks.”

Union leaders also are proposing guaranteed recess – in addition to lunch recess – for elementary students, less testing in schools, more planning time, greater input from teachers on professional development, and a clause that would allow teachers time to attend their own children’s parent-teacher conferences.

“Steps, tracks, longevity and nothing more out of our pocket on health care is a minimum,” said Steve Wentz, president of the local union, which represents about 4,200 teachers and other certified staff, including school nurses, counselors, social workers and librarians.

I’m concerned about keeping teaching in (USD) 259 a career opportunity.

Steve Wentz, United Teachers of Wichita president

“That’s not a raise. That’s what we’re supposed to get anyway.”

Wentz said the district’s health insurance plan is one of the last incentives that attracts high-quality teachers to Wichita and makes them want to stay. He said his team plans to fight increases in premiums, which could translate to a pay cut for teachers.

“I’m concerned about keeping teaching in (USD) 259 a career opportunity,” Wentz said. “So the things down the line that are attractive, making people want to stay in the job, those are every bit as important as salary.”

The union’s call for mandatory recess comes amid a recent effort by several Wichita parents to allow children more unstructured time during the school day.

“We have gone too far the other direction when it comes to testing and just hammering these kids,” Wentz said.

“They like to talk about data. Well, there’s data that shows the more kids get to run, jump and play, the better they actually do academically. … We need to come back to some sort of happy medium on that.”

Traditional negotiations

This year’s negotiations will mark a return to traditional talks after two years of a process called interest-based bargaining. After submitting their initial proposals, teams from both sides will meet regularly and submit amendments and counterproposals until they finally agree on contract terms.

It’s not clear when teams will meet to begin negotiations. The process, normally underway by March or April, was delayed this year while district officials awaited action by state lawmakers on school funding.

They’re still waiting on the Kansas Supreme Court to decide whether the legislative fix meets its February order for more equitable school funding.

“It’s a bit of deja vu,” said Allison, the superintendent. “We’re entering negotiations, and we’re continuing to be under significant budget issues that are out of our control, so that makes it difficult.”

Wentz said teachers recognize the challenges districts face regarding funding. Nevertheless, “There are concrete things that can be done within the district that will save jobs,” he said.

$39,146starting salary for Wichita teacher

$46,463value of starting salary and benefits

“The direction we’re heading is not sustainable,” he said. “I’m out in the schools, and people are just like, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ … And there is a palpable disconnect from upper administration and the board as to what’s going on.”

The current contract, approved by Wichita teachers last August, froze salaries and cut the school year from 190 to 188 days. The contract also established higher health premiums for employees and spouses who use tobacco products and for spouses who have access to employer-sponsored health insurance but choose the district’s health plan.

Starting salary for a Wichita teacher is $39,146. Add in benefits, and it reaches $46,463, according to district figures.

The last salary increase Wichita teachers received was a 2 percent raise in 2014.

Hoping for compromise

When Freeman presented budget projections to the school board earlier this year, they did not include a pay increase for employees. An across-the-board raise of 2 percent for teachers and other personnel would cost the district $16 million to $18 million, he said.

Betty Arnold, president of the Wichita school board, said she hopes for a reasonable compromise as the district and union begin negotiations.

I hope they recognize that during these tough times, there are some things that we probably won’t be able to do financially.

Betty Arnold, Wichita school board president

“I hope they recognize that during these tough times, there are some things that we probably won’t be able to do financially,” Arnold said.

“I would hope that they understand it’s not a matter of do we value them, do we recognize what they bring to the table, do we appreciate their service. It’s none of those things,” she said. “It’s simply that we’re trying to figure out a way to keep the doors open.

“If ever there was a time we need to pull together and understand the crisis that faces public education, it’s now.”

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