Archive for Sunday, November 14, 1999

TEACHERS FACE SCARCE RESOURCES

November 14, 1999

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Tight budget times could squeeze the Lawrence school district's kinder, gentler approach to teacher contract negotiations.

Negotiators working on a new contract for Lawrence public school teachers would probably befuddle rigid adversaries who helped create this country's stereotype of labor and management conflict.

After all, the Lawrence school board and Lawrence Education Assn. representatives agreed to these ground rules:

  • Be open and honest.
  • Treat each other with respect.
  • Accept mistakes in good faith.
  • It's OK to disagree.

"No smoke-filled rooms," said Patti Bailey, LEA's lead negotiator and a Free State High School teacher.

Jim Freeman, the district's executive director of business services, will be Bailey's peer in the six-month, or longer, process to arrive at a contract that serves 850 teachers in the 2000-2001 academic year.

"Right now," Freeman said, "we're exchanging ideas. Looking for mutual interests."

The collegial interest-based bargaining process could unravel in the face of harsh economic realities.

Consider a single subject: teacher salaries.

Gov. Bill Graves and the Kansas State Board of Education are more than $100 million apart on what they think the state should spend on public education in the next 18 months.

If that gap doesn't close, it would slice into the state's per-pupil funding of school districts in the current budget year and again next year. And about 80 percent of the Lawrence district's budget is tied up in employee wages and benefits.

Budget cuts would make it extremely difficult to help Lawrence teacher salaries catch up with comparably sized districts in Kansas.

Last year, when money was more plentiful, a sticking point in contract talks was salaries. A compromise gave teachers a 3.5 percent increase for the 1999-2000 school year.

In initial talks for next year's contract, teacher compensation issues have dominated brainstorming sessions.

LEA President Wayne Kruse said it would be beneficial to consider overhauling the district's teacher pay scale. He also wants to find ways to improve compensation of teachers outside of salaries.

"I think there may be other ways we can be rewarding teachers," Kruse said.

Bailey said teachers who achieved national board certification should receive additional compensation from the school district.

Other negotiators suggested that the two sides examine training for support staff, mentorships for new teachers, recruitment and retention of teachers, cost-of-living adjustments for early retirement packages and the use of substitute teachers.

Mick Lowe, West Junior High School principal and a member of the negotiating committee, said the district ought to aim for improvements in staff development programs.

"We need quality staff development," he said.

Freeman said other topics of interest during negotiations would be teacher evaluations, inclusion of special-needs students, student assessment on standard tests, teacher collaboration in the junior high schools and class sizes districtwide.

"If you look at the data we have, Lawrence has good class sizes," he said. "But there are pockets where they're not."

School board member Scott Morgan, part of the administration's negotiating team, said there ought to be thought given to making sure teachers have time to do their jobs.

For example, a National Education Assn. report indicated U.S. teachers work an average of 49 hours each week.

"Teachers don't have enough time to do all the things people want them to do," Morgan said.

Of course, most of these ideas would prompt reforms that carry a hefty price tag.

And if the 2000 legislative session goes badly for public education, the primary focus of interest-based bargaining could wind up being special interests.

"It's a process," Freeman said. "We can hope for the best."

-- Tim Carpenter's phone message number is 832-7155. His e-mail address is tcarpenter@ljworld.com.

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