OPRF teachers narrowly OK deal

? Salaries at the bottom of the pay scale get biggest hikes, some in double digits.

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The District 200 Board of Education approved a three-year teachers contract last week after union members narrowly ratified the contract by a five vote margin.

Among the 207-person faculty, 98 teachers voted for the contract, 93 against, and 16 did not vote.

John Rigas, the sole board member on the district's negotiating team, said the vote shows that both sides did well for their constituencies.

"It's an agreement that meets right in the middle," Rigas said last Wednesday at a special meeting called to finalize the deal.

Union representatives did not return phone calls about the vote.

Board president Carlotta Lucchesi speculated that teachers voting no may have found fault with changes in benefits wrought in the deal.

"It's tough with any group to restructure benefits," Lucchesi said. "People look at those as entitlements unfortunately."

The contract does away with some early retirement benefits, and on average doubles the employee's share of medical insurance premiums. The new contract requires teachers to pay 5 percent to 7 percent of premiums for single coverage, and 10 percent for family coverage.

Raises bring lower salaries in line

Although raises throughout the pay scale average below 3 percent for the duration of the contract, per-teacher raises, when so-called step increases are factored in, can be significantly larger.

For example, a teacher who came to the district last fall with a bachelor's degree and no experience will receive an almost 10-percent raise this fall. That teacher who started with a salary of $39,763 in fall 2003 will make $49,237 in the 2006-07 school year, an increase of 23.8 percent.

Teachers with advanced degrees will also receive considerable hikes. A teacher who came to the district last fall with a master's and five years of experience?#34;the preferred hiring qualifications at the district?#34;made $50,101. This fall, with an additional year of experience, that teacher would make $56,674, a raise of 13.1 percent.

Those raises are part of a strategy to bring salaries of teachers with less than 10 years of experience into line with more experienced teachers, and to make the school more competitive among less experienced teachers seeking employment.

"It's hard to measure how many candidates we lose, who see they can make $1,500 to $2,000 more elsewhere," said Jason Edgecombe, assistant superintendent for human resources.

Attracting the best teachers to the district is a goal the school has to balance with fiscal responsibility, Edgecombe said. The master's-plus-five is the targeted level of education and experience, but occasionally desired candidates come with more of one or both of those qualifications. When that happens, the district tries to balance costs by hiring teachers below the MA-plus-five level.

Last year, among 22 new hires, three were at the MA-five level, 12 were below and seven were above.

No estimates of total cost

District 200 Chief Financial Officer Cheryl Witham did not respond this week to requests for a figure of total budget impact resulting from the new teachers contract.

Lucchesi would not hazard an estimate on the impact, but said the board, throughout negotiations, looked at how the contract would impact its finances, especially in terms of not allowing it to force the district to ask for a referendum before 2008.

Rigas estimated the impact to be around 5.5 percent, or the average amount of raises plus step increases. Step increases are raises teachers receive after they have worked another year at the district, and don't apply to new hires and teachers who have reached the cap for step increases.

However, that estimate may be low, considering 43 percent of the district's teachers have between one and five years of experience, and fall into the zone of more rapidly increasing salaries.

Some contract cost details remain uncertain, board members said, as some costs, like those for medical insurance, can fluctuate.

The district's auditor praised the district at a recent meeting for restraining insurance costs at 1.2 percent. But he has told the board to expect future increases more in line with the industry standard of 15 percent, Rigas said.

Rigas said the deal falls within promises he and other board members made to restrain salary costs, as the district's salary structure falls within the midrange of salaries for the 19 school districts it considers as a peer group.

Contact: dcarter@wjinc.com

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