David White said he wished the Ottawa school district had unlimited resources when it came to teachers’ salaries.

“It would be nice to be able to have an open checkbook and write [checks for the] salaries we all know you all deserve, but the state doesn’t give us that option, and we’re doing the best we can with the funds we have available,” White, school board president, told the more than a dozen teachers and community members who came to Monday night’s school board meeting to urge board members to resolve a salary dispute between the district and the teachers’ negotiating team. The issue has proved to be a stumbling block in ratifying a teachers’ contract for the 2013-2014 school year.

After months of negotiations, talks between the Ottawa school board and the Ottawa Education Association — which represents the district’s teachers — stalled in late August over a final sticking point related to salaries. The school board decided the negotiations were at an impasse during its Aug. 26 meeting. An impasse triggered the insertion of a third-party mediator into the negotiations.

It’s not unusual to begin a school year without a teachers’ contract, officials said. Last year, the school board and teachers ratified the 2012-2013 contract Sept. 24. But, unlike in recent years, this fall’s talks are on the threshold of entering the final phase of the impasse called “fact-finding.” A third party fact-finder analyzes the facts of the bargaining process and seeks to recognize a potential compromise.

Before the fact-finding phase begins, however, teachers urged school board members to approve the Ottawa Education Association’s proposed 0.5-percent increase in base pay for all the district’s 194 teachers.

“I can tell you [based on my professional experience] that fact-findings tend not to go well for either side,” HJ Heistand, UniServ director with the Kansas National Education Association who attended the last negotiation session and mediation session, said. “There’s a reason why you haven’t had a fact-finding in Ottawa in over 20 years.”

Heistand urged the school board to reconsider the Ottawa Education Association’s proposal.

“Financial times are hard,” Heistand said. “I think we would be foolish to deny that.”

But Heistand said the amount required to cover the proposed 0.5-percent raise for the district’s teachers would be a minor sum in the overall budget.

“You have a $30 million budget, and we’re talking about $50,000,” he said.

Several teachers told the school board the 0.5-percent raise wouldn’t cover a cost-of-living increase, but it would send a message to the district’s teachers that their work is valued.

Personal sacrifices

To keep up with the cost of living, many teachers like Dana Bridges, who are frozen on the district’s pay scale, have to go back to school to get a master’s degree to earn more money, Bridges, a first-grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary School, 1102 N. Milner Road, Ottawa, said.

“It is costing $13,527 out of my personal budget to seek a master’s degree,” Bridges told the school board.

Bridges’ husband and two daughters, as well as extended family members have had to make sacrifices, she said, for her to pursue an advanced degree.

The teacher became choked with emotion as she quoted her 11-year-old daughter, saying, “I really wish you were done with these classes, Mommy, so you could spend more time with us.”

Most public schools in the U.S. — including Ottawa — employ a salary grid that recognizes years of service and the amount of education as factors in determining the pay of individual teachers. The salary schedule is a grid of rows and columns, with the rows down the side being increasing years of service, called “steps,” and the columns across the top being increasing education credentials, such as bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees.

During the contract negotiations, the Ottawa school board had countered with an offer of a 1-percent base pay increase — good for the 2013-2014 year only — for about 70 teachers who were at the bottom of their columns on the pay grid and were not eligible this year to make a step up in the pay scale, district officials said.

The education association was not comfortable with recommending the one-year stipend, Megan Morris, president of the Ottawa Education Association and a first-grade teacher at Lincoln, said. Teachers voted Aug. 14 to reject the district’s proposal.

“We do not feel it is in any teacher’s best interest to take a one-year stipend, which would essentially mean that we were agreeing that they would take a pay cut next year,” Morris said after the vote. “We had asked the board to wait until the final enrollment numbers were turned into the state on Sept. 20 and at that point — or shortly after — we would have been able to look at more of a finalized budget.”

Morris was in attendance Monday night to urge the school board to rethink its position before the district entered “a long and costly fact-finding process.”

Morris and other teachers talked about the number of hours teachers put in beyond the 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. school day, including working nights and often on weekends.

“Many people, when they become friends with a teacher, are surprised at how long and intense the hours are,” Elizabeth Lowderman, fourth-grade teacher at Lincoln, said. “There are times when I pick my 3-year-old daughter up at 5 [p.m.] and take her back to school to continue my work into the evening, and I go in each weekend. I’m not paid for these hours, but I want to provide the best education I can [to my students]. My professor told me teaching is the third most stressful profession in the United States, with doctor being No. 1 and air traffic controller No. 2.”

Kevin Snider, whose wife Lorie Snider is a third-grade teacher at Lincoln, told board members teachers work long hours, including weekends and some holidays.

“I tease my wife that instead of her being a football widow, I’m a teacher’s widower,” Snider said to laughter from the audience. “Teachers work hard and do not ask for much in return.”

Funding limits

Brian Kraus, assistant superintendent who has been involved in the negotiation process, pointed out in a recent interview that the 0.5-percent increase actually would work out to be more money for some teachers who have more longevity in the district, based on the pay grid.

If the financial outlook improves in the future, Kraus said, he thought the board would feel more comfortable approving pay increases. The uncertainty of future financial resources, however, makes that proposition difficult, he said.

“The board is concerned about adding the half percent [to the base pay] because it would be fiscally irresponsible to approve that increase at this time, not knowing what funding is going to be like in the future [with regard to state aid],” Kraus said in an earlier interview.

Harold Wingert, community member, said Monday night that in years with a flat budget the board had to make sacrifices and set priorities. He urged them to make the classroom a priority and to compensate teachers fairly.

Jerry Harnden, a former school board president in the 1980s, asked the board to approve the 0.5-percent increase.

“Maybe the board could make it more clear to the community as to why this impasse is taking place .... What’s the real block here? Let’s get it done. If we need a little more taxes, charge me. I want these teachers working.”

Natasha Jenkins, social studies teacher at Ottawa High School, 1120 S. Ash St., told the board the district would not be squandering money if it approved the pay increase, but rather would be making an investment in the community and show teachers that they are valued.

“I think a half-percent raise is a reasonable recognition for the work we do,” Jenkins said.

At the conclusion of the public discussion Monday, board president White told the audience that he wanted to clarify a point about the salary discussions.

“When it came to salary, the board said ‘yes’ twice,” White said. “Each time we said yes, the teachers’ association came back and asked for more. At some point, you have to say no, in good conscience for the district.”

Morris, the education association president, said later she thought White’s final comments were a mischaracterization of what transpired during negotiations.

“I felt like he was saying that we made proposals and when the board accepted them we came back and asked for more,” Morris said. “This was certainly not the way it happened. That would have been bad faith bargaining. ... It is possible while we were talking ideas they may have thought we were making formal proposals. I guess it boils down to this — at no time did the board ever offer anything more than step, column and a one-time stipend to those not moving on the pay scale and at no time were we ever willing to accept a one-time anything because that is basically saying that our teachers would take a pay cut next year.”