Teacher contract talks in Wichita began Monday with harsh words from union leaders, who said teachers can’t accept another pay freeze if health insurance costs and workload increase.
“There’s not enough effort being made to put the cards on the table and say, ‘Can we do this differently … to help our teachers?’ ” said Keith Welty, lead negotiator for United Teachers of Wichita.
“Teachers are tired of it. They’ve had it with the workload, with the disrespect of not being heard and not being acknowledged by the (school) board. Lip service doesn’t cut it anymore.”
There’s not enough effort being made to put the cards on the table and say, ‘Can we do this differently … to help our teachers?’
Keith Welty, UTW negotiator
The district and union launched negotiations later than usual this year, following another year of significant cuts by the Wichita school board to balance its budget amid nearly $23 million in cost increases.
Because the annual contract starts Aug. 1, teachers will continue working under the terms of last year’s contract until a new one is negotiated and ratified.
Tom Powell, lead negotiator for the Wichita school board, said the district knows teachers are being squeezed but is helpless to do anything because of the budget crisis and projected cuts to education funding.
“The school board realizes our employees haven’t gotten raises, that there’s a morale problem. And while they wish they could do more about it … they’re really in a pickle,” said Powell, the district’s general counsel.
“Teachers have not gotten raises as they should have the (past) eight years, but it’s across the whole state,” he said. “It’s not just in this district.”
Adding to the squeeze in Wichita this year are proposed changes to employee health and dental insurance plans, which the district hopes will replenish its dwindling health care reserves.
According to the plan, premiums, deductibles, co-pays and out-of-pocket maximums would increase for most employees and retirees.
Under a proposed zero-premium plan, deductibles would increase from $850 to $4,500 a year for individual employees and from $1,700 to $9,000 for families. New out-of-pocket maximums would range from $6,150 to $12,300.
Employees who select one of two “buy-up” plans would pay between $38 and $172 a month in premiums. Deductibles under the plans range from $1,500 to $4,000; out-of-pocket maximums range from $4,500 to $12,000. Some specialist and prescription co-pays would increase under both plans.
A proposed buy-up dental plan would cost employees between $15 and $49 a month in premiums.
Contract talks started about 8:30 a.m. Monday in a conference room at district headquarters in downtown Wichita. The teams faced each other around a U-shaped table. About a dozen people – most of them teachers – sat in the audience.
Welty, whose union represents about 4,200 teachers and other certified staff, said employees agree that tight budgets are the result of reduced per-pupil funding from the state.
During a brief but heated exchange, he said district leaders didn’t consider cost-cutting measures proposed in April by UTW president Steve Wentz.
Wentz had urged the board to consider trimming district-level administrators and not expanding initiatives such as MTSS, AVID and the Marzano teacher evaluation system.
“We don’t understand why they’re turning a blind eye to those kinds of options,” Welty said. “They may cause other heartaches, but there was never even those discussions in public this spring.
“This has all been mishandled, from teachers’ points of view. … I’m glad to hear you say the board acknowledges the problem teachers are going through financially, but I was raised that what you do is more important than what you say.”
Powell said several of the union’s suggestions were included in the district’s final slate of cuts, including the elimination of several administrative positions and reductions to the department of curriculum and instruction.
The board does care about teachers and values teachers and realizes that teachers are what makes this district go.
Tom Powell, lead negotiator for Wichita schools
“The board does care about teachers and values teachers and realizes that teachers are what makes this district go,” he said.
A spokeswoman said the district eliminated five administrative positions, including the executive director of curriculum and instruction and the executive coordinator of new teacher induction. Principals from three schools that closed or were consolidated – Metro-Meridian Alternative High School, Towne East/Towne West Learning Centers and the Juvenile Detention Facility – filled vacancies elsewhere in the district.
In its initial proposal, UTW 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.”
Powell on Monday said one step increase for teachers would cost the district about $2.7 million, and tracks would cost at least $600,000. Getting teachers back on the proper pay scale for longevity – without retroactive pay – would cost about $5 million, Powell said.
The teams agreed to meet again Aug. 9 to present salary-and-benefit proposals. In the meantime, committees exploring teacher workload and the Marzano evaluation system will meet to explore options on those issues.
“Nobody said this was going to be easy,” Welty said. “But it’s critical that teachers know that union and management are trying to cause some good to happen.”