Lawrence school board ratifies teacher contract with no salary increase

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

Megan Epperson, left, who serves a co-chair for the Lawrence teachers union's negotiations team, speaks to the Lawrence school board about the tentative contract agreement between the union and the school district administration during a board meeting on Monday, July 26, 2021. Samrie Devin, the district's executive director for human resources, stands to the right.

The Lawrence school district’s teaching force has a finalized contract for the 2021-22 school year, with no base salary increases coming for the new year.

During its meeting on Monday, the Lawrence school board ratified the agreement with the local teachers union, finalizing the contract. The members of the union had previously approved the contract.

However, representatives for the teachers union and the school board’s negotiation teams both said during the meeting that neither side was satisfied with the lack of a base salary increase for the teachers.

Megan Epperson, co-chair for the union’s negotiations team, told the board that the union saw the highest number of members vote against ratifying the contract than it has seen in recent memory. She did not provide a specific number of how many voted against ratification.

“This really indicated the lack of sustainability in continuing with this path (in terms) of salary,” Epperson said of the vote.

The lack of salary increases for the teachers is directly related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Julie Boyle, a spokeswoman for the district, previously told the Journal-World that the two sides agreed to keep salaries flat because of the district’s budgetary issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, the pandemic caused a significant decrease in enrollment last fall, which resulted in less education funding from the state.

Boyle said the bargaining teams might continue discussions this fall over possible salary increases if the budgetary situation has improved by then.

“Due to budget constraints brought on by COVID-19 and the loss of enrollment, the team agreed to return to the table in September to discuss the budget and the potential for salary increases,” Boyle said. “… The team agreed that the current budget outlook does not allow for (increases) without significant budget cuts to personnel and instructional programs.”

Epperson said the contract includes a clause that allows the union to reopen discussions on salaries after the district’s enrollment count in September. Additionally, she said the union hopes to open negotiations for the next contract, which would cover the 2022-23 school year, with salary discussions to work toward addressing the issue earlier in the process.

Board member Kelly Jones, who served on the board’s negotiations team, said she understands why more teachers would vote against approving the contract than in years past. She said the negotiations team is committed to providing better pay for teachers, possibly for the upcoming school year.

“We are not satisfied with the outcome either,” Jones said. “We have committed to and continue to commit to working to find a path toward increasing or improving our salary package for the next year.”

Some teachers may still see increased compensation through the approved contract. The agreement provides “horizontal movement” in the pay structure, which allows teachers to earn wage increases for continuing their education — for example, earning a master’s degree.

Teachers may also see smaller compensation increases through other areas, such as a one-time health insurance rebate and a decrease in premium costs for teachers signing up for a spouse or family insurance plan.

In other business, the board heard a report on the district’s consulting partnership with Equal Opportunity Schools, an organization that aims to “ensure that students of color and low-income students have equitable access to America’s most academically intense high school programs and succeed at the highest levels,” according to a memo to the board members.

Amber Brown, a representative for Equal Opportunity Schools, told the board about the district’s first year participating in the program, which included surveying of Lawrence High School and Free State High School students during the 2020-21 school year. Data from the survey showed Latino, Black and Native American students were all less likely to enroll in advance placement, or AP, classes, than white students in the school district, she said. Brown said there are various reasons why those students may be less likely to enroll, such as outreach efforts by their schools not resonating with them.

Superintendent Anthony Lewis said the district will continue to work with the program to find ways to help improve the diversity of students enrolling in AP courses. He also noted the partnership was directly related to the school board’s recently approved equity policy, which calls on the district administration to address opportunity inequities for students from marginalized backgrounds.

“We haven’t even scratched the surface for what this partnership with EOS can do for our district,” Lewis said.

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