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Hilltown Archives The Altamont Enterprise, September 29, 2011
BKW talks still stalled, board updated on teachers’ negotiations
By Zach Simeone
BERNE While Berne-Knox-Westerlo and its teachers’ union have not yet agreed on a new contract, the last of which expired over two years ago, the district’s negotiator gave an update this week on the terms being discussed, and where things stand.
According to Kevin Harren, director of labor relations for the Capital Region Board of Cooperative Educational Services, the last full contract between the district and the BKW Teachers’ Association covered years 2002 through 2007, after which there were two successive one-year extensions. The teachers have been without a contract since 2009.
No one representing the teachers’ union addressed the crowd at Monday night’s school board meeting with respect to negotiations. Kelly Smith, president of the teachers’ association, did not return a phone call on Wednesday for response to the district’s presentation.
“There is simply no mechanism for resolving these protracting negotiations, other than continuing negotiations until we have an agreement,” Harren told the crowd on Monday, noting that the Taylor Law does not allow public school districts to unilaterally impose terms.
Harren’s nine-page chart, which lists terms that both the district and teachers’ union are asking for, will eventually be made available on the district website, www.BKWschools.org, as will the contract itself. In addition to these items relating to salary and insurance payments, the chart also includes program terms, such as the district’s asking that teachers begin teaching six courses each, instead of the current five-course limit, on an as-needed basis.
The district also looks to delete the provision that allows teachers to arrive late and leave early; to allow teachers to be assigned to cafeteria duty; and remove their entitlement to three days bereavement leave, while allowing up to five sick days to be used for a death in the immediate family.
And, teachers who had been coaching and advising clubs for a stipend would be doing so as volunteers.
“Under New York’s Taylor Law, specifically what we call the Triborough Amendment, public sector labor contracts really don’t expire in most cases,” Harren said Monday. “In fact, all the provisions of an expired contract continue until a new agreement is reached, including those provisions requiring that teachers receive their annual step increases at the start of each school year.”
This issue has been at the center of several debates in recent years, among district taxpayers, employees, administrators, and school board members alike. Salaries and benefits for district employees make up about 70 percent of the school’s $21 million budget, and district residents have asked employees to make concessions in light of the current economic downturn. For the last two years, voters have defeated the proposed school budgets, and the district has run on contingency plans. BKW, like other districts across the state, is now facing a 2-percent cap on the tax levy.
The contract that expired in 2009 included 30-steps, and teachers climb one step each year; on the first step, a teacher earns $38,350; on the 30th step, a teacher earns $86,874.
This means that, on average, the district is paying for a 2.5-percent raise per employee, Harren said. But some employees are not receiving raises, whether it be because they are already on the 30th step, or because they’ve reached what he referred to as one of the “plateaus” on the steps a period of one or more years during which the worker does not progress up to the next step.
So, in reality, “Most folks are getting about a 4-percent raise under the expired contract,” he said.
On top of the progression up through these steps, teachers’ pay would increase further as the amounts of money paid at each step are also increased.
During the 2009-10 school year, the district and teachers union met without negotiators, in an attempt to arrive at an agreeable set of terms, without help.
“It was during these negotiations that the teachers’ association agreed to accept a step-only increase in the new contract,” Harren said, “meaning that, although a teacher would progress to the next, higher salary step, the dollar amount represented by that step would not increase.”
Harren also disclosed a selection from the things each side was looking to gain from negotiations.
“The faculty asked for a salary increase, both on the [steps], to impose a percentage, and also some new monetary items,” he said. “They’re looking for new longevity payments that would represent payments over and above the number that appears on the grid for that particular step. They’re looking for an additional $1,800 upon completion of 18 years; at 22 years, they’re looking for $2,800; and, after 26 years, an additional longevity of $4,800.”
“The teachers proposed a new tenure differential, under which they would receive an additional $2,000,” per year, Harren said, “once they have achieved tenure.”
The teachers also proposed an additional $2,250 per year for those with doctoral degrees, and an additional $1,500 a year for teachers with certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
The district proposed that the raise for teachers with doctoral degrees remain at $952, as well as the raise for master’s degrees, and that teachers receive an additional $62 for graduate credit hours.
Further, the teachers are asking that, if the annual consumer price index increases by more than 5 percent, then 2 percent will be added to each pay step for every additional percentage point that the CPI rises above that 5 percent.
The district, in its proposal, offered no retroactive salary adjustment for the 2009-10 school year, freezing salaries at the 2008-09 salary schedule, with no step progression for the 2010-11 school year. The district also proposed a “transition schedule” for the 2011-12 school year and subsequent years, which involves employees hired before June 30, 2010 moving to a 43-step schedule, and limiting newer employees to 35 steps.
“What that would do, is reflect a diminution in the annual steps,” Harren said. “The board felt it was important, at that time, to keep those annual steps at less than $2,000.”
Board member Jill Norray later asked Harren to explain one of the union’s terms that involved additional compensation for those on the final salary step.
“Unit members who are off schedule, meaning that they’re at step 30, shall receive a salary increase of $500,” Harren said, “and remaining on that union member’s base shall not result in any increase on the salary schedule. In other words, that teacher’s base salary, $500 would be added to it, but it would not show up as being on the salary schedule.”
Board member Vasilios Lefkaditis asked Harren, specifically, what percentage increases teachers were asking for on the salary steps. Harren could not provide an answer.
“The Triborough Amendment requires that the percentage of health insurance premiums paid by the teachers remain the same, unless the union agrees to a different percentage,” Harren said Monday.
He said of the union, “They’re looking for $50,000 in term life insurance to be provided by the district.”
Under the current contract, no matter how insurance rates change, the district is obligated to pay 95 percent of the cost of its employees’ health insurance premium.
Each 1 percent for the total health insurance premium for district employees not just teachers equals an annual cost of about $43,000 to the district, Harren said.
According to a chart provided by Harren, the district is looking to reduce its health insurance payments, from 95 percent of the premium, to 85 percent for single plans, and 75 percent for two-person and family plans in the 2011-12 school year.
The district also proposes that, for drug co-pays, employees pay $20 for brand name drugs, $10 for generic, and $5 for mail-order prescription.
Harren also said Monday night that the district “sought to obtain the consent of the union to get rid of the provision of the contract which states that the district will provide a specific indemnity-type plan…The district felt that, by naming that specific product that’s available from only one provider, that it was casting an untenable, competitive advantage, and it wanted the ability to discontinue offering that particular plan, while it continued to offer alternative, and substantially similar plans.”
An indemnity plan allows customers to use a medical provider of their choice, and then send the bill to their insurance company, which covers all or part of the cost, though it typically requires customers to pay a deductible at the beginning of the year.
District resident Kim Kalina asked Harren about the cost of these negotiations. Harren said that he is paid $115 an hour by the district for his time negotiating, which is eligible for BOCES aid, and that the teachers’ union pays for its negotiator through its membership to New York State United Teachers. He said he could not provide a total cost to date for the negotiations.
“Although neither negotiating team was entirely satisfied, or even marginally satisfied with the results of the negotiations,” Harren concluded, “both parties expressed a willingness to bring back for a vote of their respective constituencies a deal that would not only resolve the problem that we had been living under an expired contract since 2009, but would resolve the issues for the 2011-12 school year.”