Union negotiations continue as North Marion teachers work without contract
United North Marion Educators, North Marion's teachers union, is set to meet with the North Marion School District Board of Directors on Monday in the latest mediation meeting over ongoing contract negotiations that began in April.
The two sides have all but agreed to a contract that would be retroactive to the start of the 2018-19 school year, but remain at odds regarding the percentage of wage increases and the amount the district will contribute to health insurance.
"We have settled 90 percent of the contract, there's just two articles remaining," North Marion School Board Chair Heidi Torian said. "We have been working diligently, and we don't want the teachers to work without a contract."
But teachers feel the contract that is being offered provides disproportionate compensation compared with those in surrounding districts and has been that way for years. Union members argue that the North Marion School District has a long history of offering underwhelming contracts, which in turn leads to high employee turnover, as experienced staff members leave the district to seek employment elsewhere.
"It's definitely got to be showing up on our state report card when we're constantly getting new teachers," said Mark John, union president and eighth-grade science teacher. "I feel like we're a training ground, and I guess what frustrates me is people coming into the district, we're training them, and then they're taking their experience elsewhere."
Over the course of negotiations, the union has come down from its original asking point of a 3.5 percent raise to 2.375 percent. The union has also proposed that the school district increase its contribution to health insurance by $150 to compensate for the every-growing rise in health insurance costs.
The district was offering a 1.5-percent wage increase in the first year of the contract and has since moved its offer up to 2 percent. The district has proposed a $100 increase in health insurance contributions in the most recent offer for a package totaling $295,000. The district has argued that any additional compensation would adversely affect the district's ability to retain all its programs and avoid furlough days.
"We've really stretched ourselves as far as trying to still be fiscally responsible, and any other tightening of this belt is going to result in a reallocation of resources," Torian said. "Typically what that looks like in other districts that have gone through this is it means cuts to programs and days and staff."
Staff members say this argument doesn't hold water. Negotiators cite the budgets to keep 6 percent of the district's end of year balance, but routinely ends up at closer to 10 percent, a difference of around $800,000 that is enough to provide for the union's proposals.
"It's the same argument they've been using for 10 years against us," John said. "It seems they're constantly saying enrollment is down. They want to avoid the furlough days. They just can't afford it, but by the end when the audit comes out, they've carried over more than they said."
The board argues that decreased enrollment will cost the district approximately $280,000 next year and the rising cost of the Public Employees Retirement System and employee step increases each year forces the district to budget conservatively.
"To be fiscally responsible in the way bienniums work and the way we get our money, our costs to run the district go up every year," Torian said. "It's part of the budgeting process, and it's not really like this big pot of money that's sitting out there and is not being allocated to anything."
Torian acknowledges the district cannot pay as much as larger districts that have a larger economic base, but cites that North Marion has additional benefits beyond just salary that make directly comparing contracts between districts difficult. Between smaller class sizes, tuition reimbursement and longevity stipends to the teachers at the top of the pay scale that is higher than other nearby districts, Torian believes that North Marion offers as attractive of a package as they can afford given the district's size.
But certified employees must be with the district 15 years to be eligible for the stipend, and union members argue that many simply don't stay within the district that long. The constant influx of new teachers creates unintended hardship on those who stay in the district.
"I know from personal experience that my first five years of teaching were difficult, it took a lot of time, practice and help from more experienced teachers to build my skills for classroom management, lesson planning and curriculum building," said Rachael Wilcox, a physical science teacher at North Marion High School who has been in the district 11 years. "If you have a staff where a large percentage of the teachers are still in their first five years of teaching, the quality of education is going to be lowered and the burden of mentoring on the experienced teachers is going to be overwhelming."
Regardless of where the final contract negotiations end up, the two sides agree that the teachers deserve to be well compensated. But Torian said the well of funding that ultimately comes down from the state needs to be restructured so that the district and the union don't have to negotiate over dwindling resources each year.
"We really value our teachers and we want to keep each and every one of them. They deserve a raise and they do a phenomenal job with the resources they're given," Torian said. "Unfortunately we're dependent solely on the state for all of our money, and really, this discussion needs to go about 25 miles down the road and talk to the state about stepping up and providing the funding for schools and education."