The rising cost of health insurance and new methods for conducting teacher evaluations will be among the top issues being negotiated this year for teachers in the Lawrence school district.
And while school board members say they would like to offer a general pay raise for teachers next year, they say that all depends on the Kansas Legislature and how much money they put into the state's education budget.
"That is huge," said board member Randy Masten, who is part of the district's negotiating committee this year. "Are they going to maintain funding? Are they going to continue to decrease funding? That's our biggest worry."
Negotiators from the district and the Lawrence Education Association will meet face-to-face next week to talk about those issues and others as the two sides try to hammer out an agreement on teacher contracts for the upcoming school year.
LEA is the local union that represents teachers in the Lawrence district.
Gov. Sam Brownback's budget proposal this year recommended no change in base state aid to local schools, which is currently $3,838 per pupil. But that amount still represents a substantial cut from from the pre-recession peak of $4,400 per pupil in fiscal year 2009.
So far, both the House and Senate have endorsed that level of funding, although the two chambers have not yet agreed on a final budget.
LEA's negotiator David Reber said he thinks there may be room for pay raises even with flat funding from the state.
"We have always thought there's more money available than what is initially offered, or even what finally comes our way," Reber said, noting that the district has large cash reserves in some funds at the end of each fiscal year.
The two teams had an initial meeting March 26 to identify key issues that will be discussed this year.
The next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday to discuss fringe benefits. Negotiators will meet again April 23 to discuss teacher evaluation protocols. Another meeting is scheduled for May 9, but no specific topic has been designated for that session.
Masten said the school district has already been advised to expect an increase in health insurance premiums of about 10 percent next year. The two sides will have to negotiate how to pay for that increase, which would typically come from either increased premiums paid by employees, higher contribution rates paid by the district, changes in the benefit structure, or some combination of the three.
Meanwhile, all schools in Kansas are required to adopt new teacher evaluation protocols within the next two years that will use student growth and achievement as one of the factors in assessing a teacher's job performance. That's a condition of the federal waiver Kansas received last year from requirements of No Child Left Behind.
District administrators and union officials have been working for several months on developing the new evaluation system, which will be fully implemented in the 2014-15 school year.
Reber also said the union is asking to reserve the right to renegotiate the contract later in the year if additional money becomes available through resolution of the ongoing school finance lawsuit.
A district court panel of three judges ruled in January that current funding levels are unconstitutionally low and ordered the legislature to increase base state aid to at least $4,492 per pupil. But that order was put on hold pending an appeal to the Kansas Supreme Court which recently ordered mediation in the case.
"Our concern was, if we were to agree on salary and ratify a contract, and then all of a sudden more money shows up, we would want an opportunity to be a part of deciding where that would go," Reber said.