BKW approves support staff pact

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

A counter: Just before the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board voted, 3 to 0 with two abstentions, to approve a new memorandum of agreement with teacher aids and assistants, board member Vasilios Lefkaditis, center, presents his calculations of its cost and asks the board to hold a special meeting to examine the numbers. He and Gerald Larghe, beside him, abstained, warning that the district may not be able to afford the cost, with two other contracts yet to be settled. “I’m scared and I know better,” said Lefkaditis, a father of five children.

BERNE — Four years after the last contract expired, an agreement with the Berne-Knox-Westerlo Teacher Support Staff was approved amid sharp discord on the school board Monday night.

Vasilios Lefkaditis and Gerald Larghe abstained from voting on the eight-year pact, citing differences between what administrators presented and Lefkaditis’s calculations for the cost of the contract negotiated primarily by Interim Superintendent Lonnie Palmer.

Lefkaditis said the true cost of the contract was greater than administrators had shown and that their calculations had errors. He called for a special meeting, so the board could reconcile the calculations.

The three newest board members — Joan Adriance, Earl Barcomb, and Chasity McGivern — made up the majority that approved the contract.

“When you have two numbers that are drastically different, it’s irresponsible not to sit down and determine what is the actual cost,” Lefkaditis said on Wednesday.

Palmer said Wednesday that he and Interim Business Official Mark Kellet reviewed the calculations and found no errors.

The new agreement includes retroactive and future salary raises for 24 teachers’ aids and assistants and higher employee contributions for health insurance in the future. According to Palmer, the reduction of four positions in the group this year freed more than $120,000 in annual savings, exceeding the net projected cost of the settlement. For its final year, a breakdown from the business office shows, the salary increases have a net projected cost of $57,463.

The TSS and the BKW teachers’ association are both local members of the state’s largest teachers’ union, New York State United Teachers.

Contracts for the larger bargaining units — the teachers’ union and the Civil Service Employees’ Association — remain to be settled. Settling employee contracts was among the priorities drawn by the board in July and by candidates ahead of the May election for three board seats.

Lefkaditis said at the Monday meeting that he was concerned by a rumor that the units see Palmer as “padding his résumé” with quick settlements.

“I’m 65, and I came out of retirement because I was basically requested to help out Berne-Knox-Westerlo,” Palmer said Wednesday. “I have no intent to pursue work after this year and I did not do it to pad my résumé.”

The board was questioned at the meeting by Pamlea Fenoff, a parent and Knox resident, for authorizing Palmer to act as its agent in negotiations.

“Why on earth would you give someone who’s here for one year and has no vested interest in this school district permission to sign on a contract without any one of you being in on those negotiations?” asked Fenoff.

“My family has been here since the 1800s. I’ll second that,” said a man in the gallery who declined to give his name to The Enterprise.

Palmer said he has kept the board informed about negotiations since he started the process this summer.

Board members gave Palmer permission, 4 to 1, to sign the TSS agreement, Lefkaditis said, in an executive session in January.

“I polled the board,” said Adriance of the closed meeting. “We did not take action.”

“As every executive session does and you ask the superintendent to do something,” said Adriance at Monday’s board meeting, referring to board direction for the superintendent. “We do it at every single meeting. Go interview, go offer this person a job.”

“That was under the assumption that there were no significant differences between what Vas came up with and the numbers,” said Larghe.

Salaries

The contract for teachers’ aids and assistants runs from July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2018 and includes raises intended to bring Berne-Knox-Westerlo salaries to a level competitive with local districts.

In the previous two years, employees will have 7-percent raises over base salaries each year, then a 6-percent raise for 2013-14. Future raises will be 3-percent from July 2014 to June 2017, then 4 percent in 2017-18.

Starting salaries are to be $11,250 for teachers’ aids and $12,885 for teaching assistants from July 2013, increasing each year after. By July 2017, new teachers’ aids will start at $12,909 and teaching assistants will start at $14,643.

Unit members get longevity stipends on top of their base salaries of $1,000 for 10 years, $1,500 for 15 years, and $2,000 for 20 years. Stipends are to be paid retroactively to employees working for the district after July 2013.

“Our district is not in financial difficulty,” Palmer said Wednesday. “It is not in financial stress, but it also could get there if we paid a lot more than our neighbors are paying, or if we hired too many employees. Now, we have too many employees on the payroll right now and that is what’s causing our fiscal issues.”

Health insurance

Palmer said at the Jan. 27 meeting that the district’s financial problems come from a large number of health-insurance contracts relative to the number of students. He said the district’s number of non-teaching staff is especially high. He said he is trying to raise salaries to get closer to the median among districts in the Capital Region where BKW competes for employees.

The agreement extends the length of the workday by one hour for newly hired teachers’ aids and assistants and extends the day by 15 minutes, starting next year, for those currently employed.

Palmer said he spoke with attorneys on Wednesday and learned the hourly rate for newly hired aids could drop below the minimum wage at the end of 2015, when the minimum wage becomes $9 per hour.

“When we get to that point, we’ll have to raise the salaries to reach the minimum wage,” said Palmer.

Starting in July 2014, the unit members will use Empire Preferred Provider Organization as a base health-insurance plan. Other plans offered through the district may be used, but the employee would have to pay for the difference from the base plan.

“The parties agree that these calculations shall not include nesting,” the agreement reads. The calculation method of “nesting” was identified as causing the district to overpay its contributions to health-insurance premiums across many of its insurance contracts, though it differed from the percentages given in the employee contracts.

The new TSS agreement applies straight percentages, increasing over three years, when calculating contributions towards health-insurance premiums, Palmer said.

Aids and assistants hired before July 2004, contribute 4.5 percent for individual plans, 10.75 percnet for two-party plans, and 12 percent for family plans. If hired after July 2004, they contribute 6.5 percent for individual plans, 14.5 percent for two-party plans, and 16 percent for family plans.

By 2016, unit members hired before July 2004 will contribute 7.5 percent to individual plans, 13.75 percent for two-party plans, and 15 percent for family plans. If hired after July 2004, they will contribute 9.5 percent for individual plans, 17.5 percent for two-party plans, and 19 percent for family plans.

For dental insurance, the board contributes 100 percent for individual premiums and 75 percent of family premiums.

Co-payments for prescription drugs are $4 for generic drugs, $14 for preferred brands, and $24 for non-preferred brand drugs.

For waiving health coverage through the district by using a spouse’s plan, the district can pay a yearly stipend of 50 percent of the cost of an individual premium of the least expensive plan.

The increased contributions from employees, Palmer said, offset the health-insurance costs going forward, no matter at what rate they grow. He noted insurance-rate increases would be the same for the old terms of the contract and widen the difference in cost between the two.

Accounting for the more than $120,000 reduction in salaries and benefits for four aids laid off in August, Palmer expects the overall cost of the unit to go down over time.

“We did that so we would have room to settle these contracts,” Palmer said during the meeting. Palmer also attributed the lay offs to a reduction in students classified for special education, which can require one-to-one aids and drive the need for such positions.

Susan Casper, BKW director of special education, told the board Monday that 20 of the district’s teacher support positions work with special-education students, though some overlap with regular education students, as well.

The school’s classification rate for special education students is currently between 13.5 and 14 percent, Palmer told The Enterprise. The state average is 12.5 percent. At its height, the classification rate for BKW was 16.8 percent in 2009-10, after a steady increase from 13.1 in 2003-04.

The numbers

Returning from the board’s executive session to discuss in public the final agreement reached with the union, Lefkaditis rolled a cart with a projector into the room where about 15 onlookers waited. He showed a spreadsheet of his own calculations that he said reflected the true cost of the contract.

Almost $110,000 was shown to be the net cost of the final year of the contract, compared to the current contract. Lefkaditis assumed a 4-percent growth in health insurance rates, but not in retirement insurance. He said showing the cost of the contract itself is “not realistic.”

“You want to know what you write a check for,” said Lefkaditis. He warned that, with two more contracts to settle, the district could have another meeting like it had in 2011: a reduction in state aid led to a large crowd of residents worried their taxes would surge and programs would be dropped.

“What ended up happening in that meeting is the collective bargaining units ended up looking greedy and insensitive, and that’s not true,” said Lefkaditis. “The board and the administration ended up looking disconnected and not in touch with reality, and that’s not true. The district has never recovered from that meeting, and that was pre-tax-cap,” he said, referring to the state-set limit on the tax levy.

The former president of the board, Lefkaditis stressed that he believes teachers’ aids and assistants deserve the salaries in the new agreement, but that he questions whether the district can afford the agreement as a whole.

Lefkaditis noted an expensive project to maintain the school’s facilities is expected, and he claimed the school’s debt had been underestimated by $120,000 per year for a total of $1.3 million.

He cited a report from the state comptroller’s office that showed BKW is under less fiscal stress than surrounding districts with larger tax bases and less poverty.

“That was not an accident,” said Lefkaditis. “That was the result of a conservative board in the last two years playing it close to the vest and making sure that we didn’t cause mayhem at this district.”

He said the savings made by Palmer follow more savings before.

 “I did not come to Berne-Knox-Westerlo, nor did Mark, to jeopardize our credibility or integrity,” said Palmer, referring to the interim business official, Kellet, after Lefkaditis suggested the board hold a special meeting. “We have provided you with correct numbers. There are certainly other ways to look at it.”

He concluded, “We know this business, and we’re telling you this district can afford this agreement and can move forward with the kind of fiscal stability you want.”

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