Teacher salary talks heated

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Contract talks became heated Friday as negotiating teams for the Coeur d'Alene school board and the local teachers union grappled over salaries for the next fiscal year.

It was the fourth time since May 28 that the groups have tried to reach an agreement on teacher salaries and benefits for 2015-16.

The school board's most recent offer to the teachers union includes an increase of $1,000 to every cell on the district's salary grid. The grid provides compensation based on years of service and education advancement.

For teachers who don't earn additional education credits, the board's offer would mean a salary increase ranging from 3 to 7 percent, depending where they are on the grid. For some teachers who add another year of experience and additional education, the increase could be from 3 to 11.75 percent. The state minimum salary for teachers is $31,750. The average annual teacher salary in Coeur d'Alene is $49,624.

For the district's most experienced, highly educated teachers - those who have at least 15 years of service and have earned a master's degree - the increase will mean a 1.7 percent pay hike. Movement on the salary grid ends at that point. The maximum annual teacher salary in the district is $60,195.

"We have a lot of teachers who have gone a long time without very large raises," said Derek Kohles, president of the Coeur d'Alene Education Association, the local teachers union.

Kohles estimated that 20-25 percent of the district's teachers have reached the grid's cap.

The school district has already agreed to absorb the cost of a 3 percent insurance premium hike, about $300,000 for all district employees.

The teachers union negotiators are calling for an increase of $1,350 to each cell on the salary matrix.

The main sticking point is a philosophical difference over how much it costs the school district to fund the grid, often referred to as "steps and lanes."

The district negotiators have said it will cost $322,000 to pay for the teacher salary increases guided by the grid.

Teachers union negotiators said they believe there is a "self-correcting" component to the grid. As more experienced and educated teachers retire and move off the grid, the teachers said the school district realizes a hidden savings when younger teachers, who are paid less, are hired to fill the older teachers' spots.

The teachers' lead negotiator, Tim Sandford, was critical of district negotiators for bringing up a 2 percent salary increase the teachers received in 2013 when the administration reported an excess fund balance following the final audit of the previous year's budget. Sandford said the teachers didn't ask for a 2 percent increase because they didn't believe the district could afford it.

"There was no discussion. The answer was, 'This is coming out of continued savings because we've done such a good job saving, and this district can afford it,'" Sandford said.

Superintendent Matt Handelman said the teachers are not looking at the whole picture.

"We're not saying we can't give 2 percent because we gave it two years ago," Handelman said. "And our fund balance is going to go down again... We have to stop that bleeding or else we're going to be in a world of trouble."

During the negotiating session Sandford was also critical of the amount the district spent to acquire its new central office in 2012. The 21,000-square-foot commercial property near the intersection of Ironwood Drive and Northwest Boulevard cost $2.2 million.

"You said teachers were a priority," Sandford said, adding that no one disagrees that the administration needed a new space. But, he said, the district might have "bought a Mercedes" when it couldn't afford it.

"The real drain on the fund balance is what happened with Winton," Sandford said.

Winton Elementary is one of five district schools targeted for renovations that are being financed by a $32.7 million bond approved by voters in 2012. The new school building is set to open to students this fall.

School officials announced in December that the Winton project is going to come in $1.9 million over the amount the district has available to complete the rebuild. Savings anticipated from other bond projects never materialized, leaving the shortfall. The school board decided in January to use its unrestricted fund balance to make up the difference.

Sandford said the teachers feel they're being asked to sacrifice money the state has directed to the district strictly for salaries to help mitigate the shortfall.

Handelman said the Winton situation has "absolutely nothing to do with anything we're talking about at the table here."

Handelman criticized the teachers for complaining about the district bringing up the 2 percent raise teachers received two years ago, and then bringing up administrative raises given out two years ago to technicians, mechanics, secretaries and about three district administrators.

"Yes it cost more, but it wasn't during the time that we weren't giving raises to teachers. So that was a fallacy, and you're speaking fallacies in this room in public... Tim, I cannot sit here and bite my tongue and hear you say those things. It's just not fair to say those things," Handelman said.

He said the purchase of the district office was with one-time funds and also has nothing to do with the current negotiations.

"You're accusing the administration of spending money on all these things that aren't teachers, even though the percent (we're spending) on salaries has been going up in the district over the years...so we're not hiding things," Handelman said.

The teachers asked the school board negotiators to consider an offer in the middle of the two offers - to fund each cell on the salary grid by $1,175.

The school board negotiators said they have to go back to the school board for direction because they have already exceeded the amount authorized by the board.

Negotiations will resume at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Woodland Middle School.

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