R.W. Traip Academy, the public high school in Kittery, is seen in a Seacoast Online file photo. Credit: File | Seacoast Online

KITTERY, Maine — The School Committee unanimously approved a new three-year contract for teachers Tuesday night, and though the teachers union did agree to its contents, their co-president said the district still has a ways to go in comparison to neighboring towns.

Credit: Deb Cram | Portsmouth Herald

The previous contract for teachers, school nurses, librarians and counselors who encompass Unit A of the Kittery Education Association, expired Aug. 31 as negotiations between the two parties remained ongoing. The staff continued working under provisions of the old contract until an agreement was reached. On Sept. 20, Superintendent Eric Waddell announced the parties had reached a tentative agreement.

Kittery teacher pay has been a hot-button topic over the last three years as the prior negotiations revealed in comparison to the average teaching salaries of nine neighboring communities, including Portsmouth, York and Marshwood schools, Kittery ranked either last or next to last.

The new agreement, which will expire Aug. 31, 2021, includes an 8 percent increase over the life of the contract. In a salary sampler provided by Waddell, a first-year Shapleigh School teacher with a bachelor’s degree and five years of experience will make $46,821 in the first year of the contract, and $53,077 in the final year.

A teacher with a master’s degree and 12 years of experience in the Kittery School District will go from $61,023 to $72,601 over the three years.

[School committee reaches contract terms with teachers after 6 months of talks]

In the Unit A collective bargaining agreement reached in 2015, teacher salaries were increased to be more toward “the middle of the pack” with neighboring school districts, and the amount of years required to reach a maximum salary was decreased from 19 years to 16. In that contract, starting pay for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree was increased from $33,000 to $35,308, with the goal of attracting more high-quality, young teachers. That same starting number in the new contract is around $38,000.

At the Tuesday School Committee meeting, Jolyn Hayward, co-president of the Kittery Education Association, said the agreed upon contract “was the best we could do at this point.”

“It does not however make up for the several contract cycles that have left the district severely lagging behind our neighboring school contracts,” she said. “The efforts three years ago to bring us closer to the middle of the pack of the surrounding districts saw some success, but those same districts continue to increase their compensation and exceed our efforts to retain and attract the best educators.”

She said in a recent summary released by the Maine Education Association that depicts earnings over an entire career, Kittery ranks 33rd, “and is only a few dollars away from being knocked off the top 50.”

In the same report, it shows York is No. 1, Kennebunk No. 2, Wells No. 4 and Eliot and South Berwick No. 7.

“We hear from the Town Council and our School Committee and our taxpayers that the educators need to be paid more,” Hayward said. “In open discussion, individuals have spoken on the record about their wish for Kittery teachers to receive a far better wage. It’s far time that we make that happen.”

Hayward said since the implementation of proficiency-based learning, seasoned staff have had to work twice as hard to make the change from when they began in the district.

[York teacher morale ‘very low’ as contract impasse drags on, union leader says]

“In the next three years, we must dedicate ourselves to finding a way to reflect that hard work in the pay that those teachers get, and make sure we attract, and more importantly, retain the best teachers in the region,” she said.

At a recent forum, School Committee member Anne Durgin-Gilbert, who is seeking re-election, said Kittery is in a tough, but unique position, in that a teacher can drive 15 minutes in another direction and make significantly more money.

When reached for comment Wednesday, Waddell said he was pleased with the contract and the work put into negotiations by both parties.

“It’s a contract that we can be proud of,” he said. Kittery, he explained, is a minimal receiver of funds from the state level, and gets no funding toward regular education costs. That’s based on Kittery’s characterization as a “property rich community,” as the state determines funding based on valuation of properties in a town. Given the state’s formula, he said, the town should be able to afford all regular education costs.

But Kittery is a community of both multi-million dollar properties and modest, small homes, which adds another level of complexity. Waddell said even if they did receive some more funding from the state, “I’m not sure that will move the needle for us the way we need it to.”

He pointed to the federal government as more of the focus, and mentioned himself, Town Manager Kendra Amaral and others were soon meeting with representatives of Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins’ offices.

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