At an impasse: McPherson teachers struggle with negotiations

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By Teri L. Hansen

Managing Editor

The McPherson School District is at an impasse in teacher negotiations. While this is new territory for McPherson, according to the Kansas Association of School Boards 2018-19 Survey, 5.1% of the 231 districts surveyed last year dealt with a joint impasse in negotiations.

“We generally get along pretty well and we’ve always had a pretty good history of negotiating together,” McPherson Education Association Vice President and member of the negotiations team Erica Shook said. “This is the first time in a very, very long time that we have gone to impasse.”

In the interest-based bargaining process, the MEA negotiates teacher contracts. The teachers have a team and the school board has a team, as well as a federal mediator. Each side wrote a letter with the items of concern to be covered. The letters were sealed and exchanged according to state statute in the spring.

“So, we had come to an agreement early on that we had brought to the staff, based on the things at that point that we had heard from staff that we thought they wanted,” Shook said. “We put together an agreement and brought it to them to ratify right before school started. And it was voted down for a variety of reasons.”

Assistant Superintendent Shiloh Vincent has been with the district three years and has served as lead negotiator since he came on.

“The greatest challenge we have faced this year has been staying within the limits of the new money (roughly $877,000) generated by the state school finance formula, while working to devote as much as we possibly can to employees,” Vincent said.

With many issues on the table, one of chief concern is teacher salaries. While this is an issue statewide, this is becoming all too common place in McPherson. For a number of years, USD 418 has fallen short in regard to how they compensate those on the front lines of education, coming in at the bottom third of the state. This has been a hard pill to swallow, as in 2018 the Kansas Legislature approved a $500 million increase for education, to flow through schools over a five-year span. Both the Kansas Department of Education and Kansas National Education Association suggested the best use of some of the funds would be to increase teacher salaries.

“In the current proposal by the board, all but roughly $45,000 of the $877,000 would be devoted to employee salaries and needed staff,” Vincent said.

So, they went back to the drawing board with the negotiations. Each side coming up with numbers, though neither coming any closer to a compromise. Then things took a turn for the worse when a few short days after another failed negotiation, the school board approved administrative raises.

“Which has not been done here for as long as I have been a part of negotiations. We have always settled teacher contracts first and then they do administrative and classified contracts, but they went ahead and approved those,” Shook said. “That created a lot of upset teachers.”

With everything being public record, each teacher saw a breakdown of the raises. The numbers had an impact on the already tense negotiations.

“It was posted in board docs, immediately following that failed ratification vote,” Shook said. “As you can imagine, when teachers are upset—already having this approved, did not go well.”

All the back and forth eventually led to the impasse that they are at now. While small concessions were made early on in the negotiations, there does not seem to be a middle ground in the foreseeable future.

“We met for the impasse meeting with the federal mediator who is the same one we’ve had, which has not gone particularly well. He stormed out of our impasse meeting so that came to a screeching halt,” Shook explained. “The board’s side came to us and offered to put a very small amount of additional money on the base. We said that was not enough. So, we countered with another number and they said there is no way that was going to happen and that was the end of our negotiations.”

Another meeting has not been scheduled. If a compromise cannot be found, the next step will be Fact Finding. This is a process in which the teachers will scour the financials and crunch the numbers to show the other side that the money they seek is in the budget.

According to Vincent, the overall percentage increases proposed seen across employee groups would be as follows:

Certified Employees: 4.63% increase

Classified Employees: 4.13% increase

Administrative Employees: 4.13% increase

Plenty has gone into the thought process of the teachers, years of struggle in many aspects of education. According to the U.S. Board of Labor Statistics, one in five teachers works a second job. This is a national figure. Shook plans to present the local numbers at Monday’s regular board of education meeting.

“There are so many other things at play in the district. Morale is so low. Most people don’t leave jobs just because of money,” Shook said. “They will do a lot of things for not as much money as they maybe want or think they should get if there’s a really great morale. And we’re just not at that point.”

These are teachers that the community cannot afford to lose. In the fall of 2018, KDE reported 612 open teaching positions in the state and only around 400 students will be coming out of teaching programs. That doesn’t take into consideration the number of teachers retiring or just resigning from teaching.

“People are leaving faster than we can fill those position. They are leaving because they are not getting paid, they are not getting treated the way they should, they aren’t respected, they aren’t supported,” Shook explained. “We have a lot of really fantastic teachers who have left well before retirement in our district. Not only have the left the district, but they’ve left teaching altogether.”

The struggle continues and may not be resolved for quite some time. Though better days may be on the horizon, with change not only within the district, but across the state. There doesn’t seem to be a question about the caliber of teachers McPherson has and the desire to compensate them for their work, the question is how to do so.

“The hardest part of this process has been committing as much money as we possibly can to employees while not overcommitting our district and the taxpayers of our community,” Vincent said. “We have tremendous teachers in our district, and we value them greatly. At the end of the day though, the funding is limited, and we have to negotiate an agreement that falls within those funding constraints. Thankfully, we are entering an era of improved school funding in our state, which will allow us to set goals and make intentional efforts to address employee salaries in the years ahead.”

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