District, teachers to file papers for federal mediation

Saturday, July 14, 2012
Fort Scott High School social science teacher and KNEA lead negotiator Roberta Lewis stares straight ahead after announcing the teachers' union refused to accept USD 234 district's "last, best and final" offer for 2012-2013 teacher contracts during negotiations Friday morning at the board office. Both parties filed joint impasse papers and will await the appointment of a federal mediator to continue talks.(Angelique McNaughton/Herald-Tribune)

Having failed to reach an agreement over a loyalty stipend and health insurance, talks between USD 234 and the Fort Scott, Kan., National Education Association have reached a standstill.

Authorized by the school board, district officials presented what they called their "last, best and final" offer of a 1 percent salary increase for 2012-2013, advanced degree movement and one step up within the salary schedule. The teachers' union had agreed to the district's proposal, but also requested an increase to the health insurance contribution and some form of "loyalty stipend" for some 45 employees who did not receive any back pay from the recouped lost steps last week.

"I think I already know what we will say after discussion," Fort Scott High School social science teacher and KNEA lead negotiator Roberta Lewis said.

After less than five minutes of talking over the board's final offer -- minus the loyalty stipend -- Lewis returned with the teachers' response: no.

"I've told you everything I can tell you. We've tried to present everything as fairly as possible to the rest of the board members," school board president and district spokeswoman Janet Braun said. "I don't think we can move any further."

Business Manager Tiffany Forester immediately began filling out the joint impasse papers to send to the Office of Labor Relations in Topeka requesting that a federal mediator step in and attempt to break the deadlock. If the mediation fails, a "fact-finding" panel of experts would be appointed to further dissect the district's budget and make recommendations to the school board.

Deputy Clerk/Secretary Connie Billionis said this is not the first time teacher negotiations have reached impasse. Billionis couldn't remember when the last time was, though.

"It doesn't happen often, but it's happened," she said.

After the meeting, Winfield Scott Elementary At-Risk teacher Linda Jackson said, "we just want what's fair for the teachers; that's it."

The collective bargaining process began at the end of March, covering items such as salaries and the district's health insurance contribution. Both sides have gone back and forth amicably, frequently praising the other for their efforts but respectfully declining the offers.

New Superintendent Diane Gross said when she was at a school district in Liberal, teacher negotiations reached an impasse, but were settled before official action was taken. A contract was not ready for the beginning of the school year in Liberal, Gross said, which created "a lot of uncertainty" and flagging teacher morale.

"This is not the ideal way to start (the school year), and especially from my seat," Gross said. "I was hoping we would have some sort of agreement."

Approximately 154 teachers are waiting for the conclusion of the talks. Educators recently accepted the district's offer to use end-of-the-year funds to recoup lost steps from 2009 through 2012. District officials also agreed to forfeit any new state money -- about $148,000 -- to fund the salary increases and step movements. The money comes from the state legislature's proposed $58 increase in base state aid per pupil.

School board members also recently agreed to award classified district staff a 2 percent salary increase and one step on the staff salary schedule. The original proposal included both administrators and classified staff, about 172 total, but board members did not approve the raises for administrators.

"My understanding is that the 2 percent for the classified staff is minimal compared to the certified staff," Gross said. "Our certified staff and buildings cannot operate without the support of paraeducators and it takes everybody to operate the system to be the best we can be and classified staff have not seen a raise and (are) not getting any recouped steps."

During the negotiation meeting, a district teacher who asked to remain anonymous, said the classified staff raises "didn't help" the teachers' decision to reject the district's offer.

Federal mediators will contact the district to set up an available date to continue conversations in about four to six weeks.

A special school board meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Monday.

A majority of that gathering will be spent in executive session.

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