The Ottumwa Courier

January 13, 2014

School district optimistic

By MARK NEWMAN
Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — Negotiations have to start somewhere. The suggestion put forth by teachers in the Ottumwa school district is for a total package increase of 9 percent.

The local teachers' union has submitted its initial contract proposal for the school year that will start in the fall of 2014. There are several requests to change rules for teachers or for the district. Those don't always cost the district more money, though they can. It's the total package increase that many people think of when they talk about contract negotiations.

Yet that doesn't mean teachers are asking for a pay hike of nearly 10 percent; "total package" includes things workers never really see, like insurance premiums and other benefits, social security tax and Iowa employee retirement funds. Part of the increase could also include pay raises for teachers.

Though much of the negotiation process is done in privacy, the initial proposal meeting is, by law, open to the public, explained Ottumwa school superintendent Davis Eidahl.

"I believe everyone involved in the process understands the initial proposal is not what the final contract agreement will be," Eidahl said. "It's simply a starting point to begin the conversation."

So this is just the first step.

The district budget has a "general fund" balance, which is used for teacher pay and, with some restrictions, other expenses. That fund brings in about $44 million and spends about $44 million. The current proposal would take an extra $1.8 million. So one question for negotiators, said Eidahl, is what kind of "new money" the district can expect. Currently, around $22 million is spent on salary and other expenses earned by teachers in Ottumwa.

"Initial proposals are a good way to communicate priorities to begin the negotiation process," said Eidahl after he received and read the submission from the union.

Some of those priorities become clear upon viewing the list of "language" changes teachers seek in their master contract.

Brett Fischels, a teacher, is chair of the negotiation committee on behalf of the Ottumwa Education Association. Ideas for changes in the contract can come from a number of different sources, he said. But the committee puts out a survey to members in order to measure the strength of their desires. The negotiators may receive feedback from an individual with a concern. Or important changes may be recommended by state or national organizations for teachers.

One example of that: Teachers are proposing the contract include a section about the new "peer review" process. For example, it should be clearly defined as a series of meetings discussing and practicing professional skills with other teachers and that there should be procedures in place in case people who clash are working together in a group.

Other proposals currently on the table: health insurance will be paid by the employer starting at $535 per month per full-time employee, to be paid toward their health insurance premiums. If the employee takes the "family plan," then the district will pay an additional $190 per month. As detailed in the proposal, certain extra health insurance expenses would be paid by the employee.

Under "Safety Provisions," the recommendations include changes to the way the paragraphs are written. One says the district will maintain a safe, healthy work environment. But the other says that from now on, there must be a school administrator in the building; that if the sole (usually a principal) has to go to a meeting, they will designate someone to be in charge — and let their people know who that is.

Teachers want to know 10 days before the end of school where they will be teaching next year. Also, building assignments won't be done as a way to punish a teacher; affected staff would have input on the process.

Meetings, conferences or special events outside of normal contract days will be paid at per diem. The same would happen if they are required to perform "door duty" outside normal contract hours. Per diem is the daily pay rate for a specific teacher.

When an employee retires after 20 years of teaching, they will be paid a portion of leftover sick days, if any, which will be considered "severance pay."

The goal when it comes to contract language, said Fischels, is to get it right in the agreement: It's very difficult to make a change once the papers are signed, and that, he said, goes for both parties.

Eidahl said the district has 10 days to respond to the initial proposal.

"Successful negotiations occur as a result of positive relationships and trust between both sides of the table," he said. "Our district is fortunate to have both in place, which has resulted in several consecutive years of a very effective process."

— To follow reporter Mark Newman on Twitter, see @CourierMark