BELFAST, Maine — After more than 18 months of stalled contract negotiations, the school board and teachers of RSU 20 may be closer to coming to an agreement after a state-appointed fact-finding panel issued its own recommendations for settlement.
The school board last week let union negotiators know that it’s willing to accept in full all of the recommendations on almost every disputed issue, although the president of the local education association said Monday that there are still “gross inequities” that need to be resolved.
“Nobody needs to be told that the RSU faces enormous financial challenges, even as we strive to maintain and improve the quality of education for our children,” the school board members wrote in their response to the panel’s report.
Betty Lu Brown, president of the Education Association By the Bay, wrote that the board’s proposed salary scale and benefits package is unfair to individual teachers, some of whom would face total compensation losses of up to $3,000 in a year.
“This is unacceptable,” she wrote in a response sent to the BDN Monday afternoon. “These gross inequities need to be dealt with by the parties. It’s an issue of basic fairness.”
The nine-town school district is composed of Belfast, Belmont, Frankfort, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont, Searsport, Stockton Springs and Swanville. One of the complicating factors for the contract is that the district resulted from the unification of the former SAD 56 in Searsport and the former SAD 34 in Belfast, which were brought together under Maine’s school consolidation law. Salaries for SAD 34 teachers were generally much higher than the salaries for SAD 56 teachers.
The school board proposed having the salaries of former SAD 56 teachers gradually rise to the level of the former SAD 34 teachers. The two would be fully equalized in 2013-2014.
According to the board’s proposal, some of the former SAD 34 teachers would receive no salary increases for one or two of the four years being negotiated, but no teacher’s annual salary would be reduced.
It also has proposed having the employee share of health insurance rise from 20 percent this year to 24 percent by 2013-2014. Health insurance premiums ranged this year from $6,888 for a single plan to $18,895 for a full family plan.
“Everybody wants to have this resolved. It’s a morale buster,” RSU 20 Superintendent Bruce Mailloux said last Friday. “It creates anxiety and discontent. It’s not good for education. It needs to be resolved.”
Last spring, more than 100 teachers picketed a school board meeting to protest their lack of a contract.
The three-person fact-finding panel from the Maine Labor Relations Board listened to both sides and finished its report this summer, giving recommendations on the contested issues.
The report said that blending the “long-standing arrangements” of the two former SADs into one collective bargaining agreement would be a “challenging task … under the best of circumstances.”
But the two former districts’ radically different pay rates, benefits, salary step scales and more, coupled with tough economic times and shrinking school budgets, mean that the circumstances are hardly ideal.
Brown wrote in her response that during the negotiations, the parties agreed that “no one would move backward,” that the two former districts would be on one pay scale, that there would be “reasonable increases” and that the contract would be affordable to the taxpayers.
She said that the board’s proposal does not meet these goals.
“If the salary and benefits of teachers fall behind, RSU 20 will have a hard time attracting and keeping quality teachers,” she wrote. “The issue here is equity and fairness for all, two concepts taught in classrooms districtwide.”
If the school board and the teachers cannot come to a contract agreement through the fact-finding report, Mailloux said that the next step is arbitration, with the arbitrator making a final, binding ruling.
He said that the tough economic times have had a big impact on the school district, which has investigated the possibility of closing at least one elementary school to cut costs. Mailloux pointed out that several towns were late this year in paying their school taxes, which is very unusual.
“Economic times are very, very difficult,” he said.
He said he hopes the issue will be resolved soon.
To view the fact-finding panel’s recommendations, visit online: www.rsu20.org/factfindingteachers.pdf
To see the RSU 20 school board’s response to the fact-finding report, visit online: www.rsu20.org/SBaccepts.pdf
To view the teacher’s union response to the fact-finding report, go to http://bdn.to/rsuunion.