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Negotiators for the Lawrence school district and the local teachers union met face-to-face Monday night for the first formal round of talks on new contracts for the upcoming school year.
But most of the discussion centered on nonsalary issues such as family leave policy, health benefits and time spent for professional development, while both sides said they are waiting on the Kansas Legislature to settle on a school finance package to determine how much money might be available for pay raises.
Last year, teachers received an average 3 percent increase in their base salaries. That was largely funded by dipping into the district's cash reserves in certain funds, a practice district officials have said cannot continue indefinitely.
Base state aid for public schools is currently set to go up by $14 per pupil next year, which would mean about $246,000 in new base funding for the Lawrence district. But the whole issue of school finance is currently in flux in Topeka as lawmakers try to respond to a Supreme Court decision saying they need to increase aid flowing to poor school districts.
Both sides are also waiting to receive proposals for the cost of medical coverage next year, although district officials say they are expecting to see about a 6.5 percent increase in costs. Of that, about 2.9 percent is the result of the district's claims history last year, while 3.6 percent is attributable to costs associated with the federal Affordable Care Act, officials said.
Last year, health insurance costs went up about 11 percent.
David Reber, lead negotiator for the Lawrence Education Association, which bargains on behalf of teachers, described it as a "hurry up and wait" situation.
"Everything is either waiting on another committee, or waiting on money," he said.
The school district opened the talks with a package of proposed changes, some of which have an indirect impact on how much certain teachers may be paid next year.
One item would allow teachers to move up the salary schedule in the middle of the school year if they earn either a master's or doctoral degree during the term, as long as they notify the district by Aug. 20 that they expect to receive the degree.
Assistant superintendent Kyle Hayden said that would benefit teachers who earn degrees through online programs that confer the degree as soon as the work is completed. Currently, teachers who earn advanced degrees have to wait until the next contract year before receiving the additional pay.
But the district is also asking teachers to increase from six to 10 the number of collaboration days that are spent doing professional development on what are called "district priority" issues.
Teachers in Lawrence currently use Wednesday afternoons for collaboration work. That's time reserved for elementary teachers of a particular grade, or secondary teachers who work in certain subjects, to meet together and coordinate their instructional plans.
But Hayden said the district needs more of that time to be set aside for district-wide priorities, such as implementing the new Common Core standards, integrating technology in the classroom, shifting toward the "blended learning" model of instruction and diversity issues, just to name a few.
Lawrence High School teacher Jeff Plinsky, who is part of the union's negotiating team, said he understood the need for more district priority days because of the number of changes being implemented, both at the state and local level. But he said teachers would like some assurance those demands will be lowered in the future.
The LEA also offered a few items it would like to see included in a new contract. Those included formal definitions of certain terms used in the contract. The union also wants the union itself to be named as an entity that can file formal grievances under the contract.
The two sides hope to reach a final agreement in May. The next scheduled meeting is set for March 31.