After months of negotiations talks have stalled between the Ottawa school board and the Ottawa Education Association — which represents the district’s teachers — over a final sticking point related to salaries.
The school board decided the negotiations were at an impasse during its meeting Monday night. An impasse triggers 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.
Both parties said negotiating points related to early release Wednesdays and the revised method of conducting teacher evaluations — necessitated by the state’s No Child Left Behind waiver — had been worked out as part of a tentative agreement between both sides.
Talks have hit a standstill, however, over the Ottawa Education Association’s proposed 0.5 percent increase in base pay for all the district’s 194 teachers, Megan Morris, president of the education association, said. Morris teaches first grade at Lincoln Elementary School, 1102 N. Milner Road, Ottawa.
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.
The 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.
“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. “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.”
Once those numbers were in, Morris said, she had hoped the two sides could reach an agreement on salary.
The school district, to its negotiating point, did not feel comfortable with the education association’s 0.5-percent base pay increase, because the raise would become part of the teacher’s base salary for the future, rather than revisiting the issue next year, Brian Kraus, assistant superintendent who has been involved in the negotiation process, 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.
Kraus also pointed out 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.
Morris understands the concern about future state aid and its effect on the district’s budget, she said. But Morris said she did not think the 0.5-percent increase was an unreasonable request, based on discussions early on in the negotiation process.
“Impasse is not in anyone’s best interest, but maybe if we bring in a mediator we can move forward,” Morris said. “I don’t think there is a teacher in our district who doesn’t want to do what is in the best interest of the district. We love what we do, but this also is our livelihood and we have families to look out for.”
Kraus expressed optimism an agreement could be worked out through the mediation process.
“I felt like the negotiations were a mutually profitable experience on a number of items,” Kraus said. “Salary is the only sticking point. I’m hopeful we can reach an agreement.”