District, union carve out new contract

Time is money, and after 10 months of negotiating, Juneau’s teachers’ union is collecting for efforts previously considered “off the clock.”

A new tentative contract between the Juneau Education Association and the Juneau School District is finally ready for public viewing, four months after the last contract expired. Use of interest-based bargaining for the first time and the Legislature’s late budget release made the road to this consensus longer than planned.

As it stands now, a 1 percent fixed salary increase, with an additional 1 percent for the one-year contract term, has been agreed upon by both parties. Union members will vote Thursday on the whether to accept the contract.

“We would have liked more, but we recognized the challenging economic situation that everybody is in,” JEA Rights Chair Sara Hannan said. “The district is hesitant to commit beyond this school year. My team was also hesitant to agree to a multi-year contract.”

The district’s FY16 budget is $85,616,471 and an overall 2 percent increase would mean reallocating $556,000 for teachers’ salaries and benefits, which typically consumes 83 to 87 percent of the budget.

In some cases, a reallocation of such a large sum could mean job cuts, but Director of Administrative Services David Means said that isn’t expected to be the case this time around.

“We saved $450,000 in fuel oil costs partly due to a warm winter,” Means said of the previous year’s budget. If the same proves true again, it could be a huge provider for funds when it comes to reallocating, but that exact figure for this new year can’t be known until the gravity of winter shows itself.

“We also looked at the difference in what we budgeted for health insurance costs for teachers and the number who signed up,” Means said. “Fewer signed up than budgeted for, so we’ll look at savings from health insurance.”

That total savings is $166,000, seemingly just a drop in the bucket. However, when combined with other savings across the board, it adds up to zero jobs lost.

Although salaries tend to dominate the conversation during contract talks, Hannan said that’s not necessarily where the biggest changes were made, at least from where JEA sat at the table.

The price of recognition

For some teachers in the district, several hours a week are spent “off the clock” developing specialized lesson plans for students who require an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) or qualify under a federal civil rights law, section 504, for special education needs.

Hannan said teachers who are dedicated to complying with these policies do so because of a “professional responsibility,” but it doesn’t always happen without some grumbling. In the past, teachers have carved out time for these lesson developments, which often include meeting with a student’s family, without compensation.

New contract language restricts these meetings and the time to plan for them to the workday unless a member elects to work a different schedule. Additionally, teachers will now receive $33.33 per hour if meetings are longer than 15 minutes.

“It’s not full wage, but a stipend will result in more compliance and less griping,” Hannan said.

Also coming up on top are long-term substitutes. Previously required to work 140 consecutive days a year for a pay raise consideration, the new contract omits “consecutive,” granting more opportunities for people the district relies heavily on in desperate situations, Hannan said.

Although not all long-term substitutes are part of JEA, Hannan said it was important the group go to bat for this cause because it often leaves a “bad taste” in the mouths of substitutes.

In the spirt of creating opportunities, the new contract also adds to a certified employee’s total creditable years of experience. Each year of documented experience for clinical or professional specialists will count, even if the experience was not part of another school district.

“This is an area where nationwide there are shortages,” Hannan said. “We felt like this language makes us more competitive if we allow you to bring in clinical experience.”

Kristin Bartlett, chief of staff for JSD, said the district currently employees nine specialists, a number that is dictated by student need.

In a perfect world

Hannan said there are no “winners” or “losers” in the new bargaining tactic, but there were a few things the union wanted but didn’t get.

JEA’s negotiating members were hoping, as they have for several years, to expand the amount of preparation time for elementary teachers. They are currently allowed 180 minutes a week, the fewest of all educators in the district.

“I think rightly so there is an equity concern on the part of the teachers that some are receiving more or less (prep time) than others,” JSD Human Resources Director Ted VanBronkhorst said.

District representatives also had a few hopes for the new contract that didn’t make it in this time around, VanBronkhorst said. In an effort to increase the four-year graduation rate made difficult by a 23-credit requirement in a 24-credit window, the two sides discussed the option of changing the school day to create more time.

In the end, both parties couldn’t decide on a method — from extending the entire school day to adding an extra period to the existing day — that didn’t have too high a cost associated with it, especially given the already tight financial boundaries.

All of this, of course, remains tentative until both governing bodies approve the contract. If approved Thursday during the JEA Ratification meeting the deal will move on to the Juneau Board of Education for approval on Nov. 10.

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