Nearly a week after the RSU 20 Board of Directors released a fact-finding report regarding the ongoing teacher contract dispute, the local teachers’ union has issued a statement calling for continued negotiations in the interest of fairness to all employees.

This past spring, a three-member panel was appointed by the Maine Labor Relations Board to weigh in on the contract feud, which has been ongoing for the last 18 months. The dispute went to fact-finding after negotiations over several key issues, including salary and health insurance, reached an impasse.

In May, about 70 members of the teaching staff spoke about their dissatisfaction with the lack of a new contract at a school board meeting. Many of them spoke about the differences in salary and benefits between teachers who had worked on the former SADs 34 and 56 before the creation of RSU 20 in 2009.

Others — while carrying signs that read “RSU 20: Pay teachers or pay attorneys?” — questioned how much more it was costing the district in legal fees to continue the battle over the contracts.

Two weeks later, the RSU 20 negotiations committee issued a statement describing claims from the Education Association By the Bay — the union that represents the RSU 20 teaching staff — as “misleading.”

In a written statement issued Monday, Oct. 17 association president Betty Lu Brown said there are several portions of the fact-finding report that do not sit well with the association.

The association’s response indicated its position is more in line with a minority report that was penned by employee representative Norman Pelletier, who was one of the three members of the fact-finding panel. Pelletier’s minority report was included with the 27-page fact-finding report.

“The Education Association By the Bay continues to engage in the negotiations process in good faith trying to reach a fair and equitable resolution for all parties. The association recognizes the complexity in merging contracts and realizes it is difficult just as the process of consolidating into an RSU has been and continues to be,” stated Brown.

Union cites ‘gross inequities’

In its response to the report, the association contended that the salary and health insurance-related recommendations by the panel would have a detrimental impact on some teachers’ paychecks.

“These gross inequities need to be dealt with by the parties. It’s an issue of basic fairness and the board’s willingness to accept the majority’s report ignores this basic need, even though the board during negotiations agreed that a goal would be for no one to move backward,” stated Brown.

Brown revisited the goals that both the association and the RSU 20 negotiations team agreed upon before entering the fact-finding process. Those included getting all teachers onto one pay scale with no staff “moving backward” in terms of pay level. Establishing reasonable salary increases while keeping the school budget affordable to taxpayers were also among those goals, wrote Brown.

“The association’s proposal meets all these goals,” wrote Brown. “The board’s proposal does not.”

Brown stated that the association’s post fact-finding proposal “would not put an undue burden on taxpayers and actually is firmly within the board’s budget.”

The association’s proposal, Brown noted, is for a one-year rollover contract for 2010-11 with no salary increases, a suggestion that matches that of the panel and the RSU 20 board.

The association is now seeking a three-year contract with annual total wage increases of 2.9, 2.8 and 2.8 percent, respectively, numbers that are aimed at reaching the goal of all employees being on the same scale under the same terms by the end of the contract agreement, Brown wrote.

“This amounts to a total increase over four years of 8.5 percent or 2.125 percent per year,” stated Brown.

Brown added that the recommended wage increases exclude estimates for employee turnover, which she said would likely reduce the percentage increases suggested by the association.

“For 2010-11 and 2011-12 turnover resulted in district savings of over $350,000, resulting in decreases in total wages paid by the district,” Brown wrote. “In fact, all transition costs are absorbed by employee turnover with no cost to the district. Further, the board put in the budget a 3 percent increase per year for wages, meaning the association has stayed within the board’s accepted budget amounts.”

Majority vs. minority

In the union’s statement, Brown said a major objection the association has to the majority report from the fact finding panel is “its failure to account for the importance of the impact of proposals and its recommendations on each individual.”

She wrote, “For some individuals represented by the association this means total compensation losses of up to $3,000 dollars in a year. This is unacceptable, and a reason a minority report was issued.”

In the portion of the minority report addressing teacher salaries, Pelletier noted that a $735,000 sum in the current year’s budget that resulted from turnover and financial carryover should be applied toward getting all RSU 20 teachers on an equal pay scale and provide reasonable increases for all staff over the course of three years.

The board had argued that the money will be needed to close a projected budget gap in the coming year, a result of steadily decreasing state and federal dollars coming into the district.

“It seems that increasing the total salary package by an amount approaching $365,000 per year for the next three years and bringing everyone onto the same pay scale during the third year is a more appropriate means of fulfilling the goals bulleted above,” Pelletier wrote in his minority report.

He continued, “Three years would total $1,095,000. The board already has $735,000 (from turnover and carryover funds) to fund future contracts, which leaves them only an additional $360,000 to fund over the next three years. Compared to an overall three-year budget approaching $100,000,000, $360,000 is a minimal amount, about one-third of one percent.”

The board had argued for a salary freeze for the 2010-11 contract year, followed by a three-year contract to cover staff from 2011-2014, using a 16-step salary scale (as opposed to the 20-step scale that Searsport teachers currently work under and the 13-step scale for Belfast teachers).

The district would also implement salary lanes for those with bachelors and masters degrees, and enact a reduced longevity pay rate for Belfast teachers — $1,500 for those who have worked from 20-24 years, $2,000 from 25-29 years and $2,500 for those serving for 30-plus years.

The board’s proposal represents a change in the current arrangement, which allows Searsport teachers $1,000 for 20 years of service. Belfast teachers are currently entitled to $1,600 after 15 years, $1,900 after 20 years, $2,200 after 25 years and $2,500 after 30 years.

In contrast, the association proposed a new three-year contract that would cover staff from 2010-2013 and which would include 13 salary steps and three degree lanes. The association’s proposal and scale would put all employees on one scale, with Searsport teachers one step behind Belfast teachers. The association also proposed longevity pay for Belfast teachers but none for those coming from the former Searsport district.

In the majority fact-finding report, the panel suggested a zero-increase in salaries for the 2010-2011 year, as the board had proposed, and enacting a 2.5 percent general pay hike for 2011-2012, a 2.25 increase for the following year and a two percent increase for the 2013-2014 year. In addition, the panel’s report indicated the increases could be reflected in differing salary scales or in overall compensation arrangements.

Also, instead of the Searsport teachers moving fully onto the scale proposed by the board in one-third increments over the three-year life of the contract, the panel proposed that the Searsport teachers be “brought 90 percent of the full way onto the scale” with a 25 percent increase in the 2011-2012 year, 30 percent in 2012-2013 and 35 percent in 2013-2014.

The panel also recommended changes to the pay rates listed under two degree lanes (bachelors and masters) because “such a significant percentage of Belfast teachers are at the top of the salary scale.”

Where the board proposed that the bachelor’s degree lane carry a $51,250 pay out for the life of a three-year contract and the master’s degree lane show a $53,250 rate, the panel suggested using incremental increases over the three years beginning in 2011-2012 (with the bachelor’s lane at $51,600 for the first year and $52,300 in the third year, for example).

Health insurance benefits were another significant sticking point in the 18-month negotiation process that is still ongoing.

Under the contracts teachers are still working under, which expired in August of 2010, health insurance cost splits for Belfast teachers were 85 percent for the district and 15 percent for the employee for a single subscriber. The ratio changed to an 80-percent cost to the district versus a 20-percent cost to employees for all forms of dependent coverage. In Searsport, the percentage splits were 88-12 for a single subscriber, 89-11 for an adult with child and 85-15 for both two adults and family coverage.

The board sought an across-the-board split of 75-25 percent for the employee, while the association proposed an 85-15 percent split for single coverage, 80-20 cost sharing for all dependent coverage and a $1,500 cash-in-lieu-of-insurance provision. Searsport teachers currently have a $1,500 cash-in-lieu of insurance arrangement, while Belfast teachers have none.

The board contended that any cash-in-lieu of insurance payments are not needed as an incentive for employees not to take the insurance because those who do take the benefit are paying more for their medical insurance than what had been the case in the past.

The association argued that under the board’s proposal on health insurance, many teachers would experience a decrease in overall compensation — for some Searsport teachers, the association claimed it could mean additional costs of $1,000.

The panel suggested eliminating a cash-in-lieu-of-insurance payment, and also determined that it is more equitable to have all participants pay the same share for the benefit regardless of whether they opt for an employee-only plan or one that covers a whole family.

To that end, the panel recommended that the district cover 80 percent of the insurance bill for the 2011-2012 year, with employees paying 20 percent. For 2012-2013, the employee’s share would increase to 22 percent (while the district’s share would drop to 78 percent), and in 2013-2014, the cost to staff would rise to 24 percent (with the district’s share dropping to 76 percent).

In its report, the panel explained that many employers in both the private and public sectors are seeing big increases in the cost of health insurance, and that “both employers and employees share the responsibility for doing what they can to keep these costs down and to share in cost increases.”

Pelletier disagreed with his fellow panel members on this issue as well, noting in his minority report that having a cash-in-lieu of insurance option in place could save the district thousands of dollars.

Pelletier argued that if all 28 of the teachers who indicated they would have taken advantage of the benefit instead chose to take advantage of single-coverage insurance, the cost to the district would be about $5,855 per person. The cash-in-lieu-of-coverage option would save the board $4,355 per individual, stated Pelletier. Those who would be entitled to family plans through the district but opt to get insurance through other sources and take the cash-in-lieu-of-coverage benefit could save the district upwards of $13,600 per person, he claimed.

Pelletier also weighed in on the health insurance cost sharing portion of the report, arguing that the panel “did not give enough credence to exhibits supplied by both the association… and the board.”

Pelletier noted that both sides compared the district to other Maine school units in terms of how much teachers pay versus the cost to their employers, and that the board’s analysis showed neighboring districts paying about 95 percent for individual coverage and 80 percent for dependent coverage. The districts that the association compared RSU 20 to provided teachers, on average, 93 percent coverage for individuals and 80 percent for dependent coverage.

“The association’s proposal falls well within the range of schools the board chose to compare itself to as far as health insurance splits,” Pelletier wrote.

The next steps

After the fact-finding report was released, RSU 20 Superintendent Bruce Mailloux said the panel suggested that concessions be made on both sides of the table, and that the board accepted the panel’s recommendations in the interest of getting the contracts settled.

In the meantime, Mailloux said negotiations can and likely will continue. If the contract issues still cannot be resolved, Mailloux said the next step is arbitration. In that phase, an arbitrator listens to both sides and issues a binding ruling on all matters except salary and benefits. For those areas of the contract, Mailloux said, the arbitrator would offer a non-binding recommendation.

If both sides are still unable to agree on the salary and benefits, Mailloux said the board can issue what’s known as a “last best offer” on the entire salary and benefits package, and the board can go so far as to impose that on the teaching staff.

Even if that occurs, Mailloux said, negotiations must continue in an effort to reach an agreement that all parties can live with.

In the association’s response, Brown expressed concern that the district may have difficulty attracting and keeping quality teachers “if salary and benefits of teachers fall behind.” She added, for example, that while the board’s proposal on health insurance cost splits would drop the district below the state average, the association’s recommendation mirrors what most districts are doing across the state.

Although the association holds the position that its post fact-finding proposal meets the goals that were established by both of the parties involved, Brown stated, the union is willing to consider other ways of meeting those goals.

Overall, however, the association feels that the board’s willingness to accept the fact-finders’ majority report, and the board’s proposal “largely mirroring the report” do not meet those goals “and simply aren’t equitable or fair on an individual basis.”

“The association believes the fact-finding process should be used as intended, to generate further negotiations between the parties and to meet a mutual resolution,” wrote Brown. “The issue here is equity and fairness for all, two concepts taught in classrooms district wide. The association wants the parties to reach an equitable and fair resolution for all demonstrating these ideals and modeling the behavior in practice.”