Teachers across the district are waiting to see if a federal mediator will resolve a stalemate between National Education Association and SMSD representatives regarding teacher salaries for the 2016-2017 school year.
At the end of a meeting on July 20, the SMSD and the NEA were unable to reach a contract agreement, so they declared an impasse. Federal mediator Peggy McNeive was assigned to the case to begin mediation, in which a mediator helps opposing parties reach a non-binding decision on an issue. After their first mediation meeting on Sept. 6, both sides decided to meet again Oct. 6 to discuss teacher salaries.
Teachers are struggling to pay their bills. History teacher Curtis White has downsized twice in the past 10 years, moving into a smaller home in 2007, then a condo last year. Despite economic hardships, White’s love of teaching has kept him in the profession.
“Teachers are not keeping up with the cost of living,” White said. “My wife and I have talked about [my leaving the teaching profession]: ‘Do you stay in teaching or do you find something more lucrative?’ [The decision has] been on the line.”
SMSD teachers are paid on a salary schedule. On this schedule, teachers’ salaries typically increase as they gain years of experience and college credits. Years of experience are considered steps, and levels of education are considered columns.
Teachers were unable to move up on the pay scale during the freezes in 2010, 2011, and 2013. In the 2011 and 2013 freezes, teachers were also unable to move over a column even if they received college credit hours; they remained frozen on their current position.
Teachers were frustrated after the SMSD publicized the approval of raises for three top administrators over the summer. The district approved raises of 9.5 percent, 9 percent and 15 percent in June 2015 for Superintendent Jim Hinson, Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Leadership Michelle Hubbard and Deputy Superintendent Kenny Southwick, respectively. The SMSD released the records of the approval to the public after the Shawnee Mission Post filed a Kansas Open Records Act request. These pay raises were given because administrators took on new duties, said NEA-Shawnee Mission president and East spanish teacher Linda Sieck.
Due to confidentiality agreements, the NEA declined to comment on the updated status of negotiations. Under the same instruction, both SMSD board president Sara Goodburn and Assistant Superintendent of Communications Dr. Leigh Anne Neal declined interviews.
Adam Goldstein, a lawyer from the Student Press Law Center, said that federal mediators request confidentiality to prevent negotiations from occurring in the media, but there are no laws requiring privacy.
Dr. Neal issued this statement for the district:
“At the end of the July 20 meeting, negotiating teams representing the board of education and NEA-Shawnee Mission agreed they were at impasse. Formal paperwork requesting an impasse determination and the initiation of mediation was filed with the Department of Labor on Aug. 2 as the next step to help the teams come to an agreement on a new contract for professional employees. Meetings between the teams and a mediator have been scheduled and are underway. During the mediation process, which is conducted in closed sessions, team representatives are instructed by the federal mediator to maintain confidentiality during the mediation process. Therefore, the district is unable to provide an interview on this topic at this time.”
The plan of the NEA as of Aug. 18 was to ask to eliminate steps 21 and 25 on the pay scale. This would mean that two “years of experience” would be added to a teacher’s total, ideally leading to an increase in salary. The hope was that this change would regain some of the credit of experience teachers lost during previous freezes, Sieck said.
In addition to freezes, the workloads of many teachers increased to six class periods last year, as opposed to five.
Science teacher Susan Hallstrom felt the effect of teaching six class periods last year. She said she was working 11-hour days and 70-hour weeks to give her students adequate attention, including extensive feedback on lab reports and homework.
“If we do what our students deserve, our workload is unreasonable,” Hallstrom said. “So I’m trying to find ways to make my workload reasonable that will have as little negative impact [on students] as possible.”
Class sizes have also grown, which means more work, Hallstrom said. While administrators do work hard, according to Sieck, teachers find it difficult to hear that there is no money while raises for administration are approved.
“We feel like we’re last in line,” Sieck said.
According to Hallstrom, it’s inappropriate for administrators to receive pay raises while teachers’ salaries are being frozen, and their workload is increasing.
“I thought it spoke very poorly of our district,” Hallstrom said. “When money is not available to pay the teachers – who have direct contact with students – I thought it was an embarrassment that the administration would even accept [raises].”
Mediation will continue until the SMSD and the NEA can accept a new contract or decide they can’t reach an agreement. They’ll then have an outside party analyze the facts of the case and create a binding solution. According to McNeive, mediation has no time limit or standards; it can require 30 meetings or just one session of a few hours.
While teachers have the option to earn more college credit to increase their salary during some years, they have to pay the cost of college classes out-of-pocket. While stipends — one-time payments — were granted in 2011, 2012 and 2013, a stipend is not an effective solution to lost wages, according to Sieck. She said many teachers work second jobs or take positions coaching or tutoring in order to make up the difference.
As the mediation process attempts to bring the two parties to a decision, teachers will operate under the contract of the 2015-2016 school year. The SMSD and the NEA last reached an impasse four years ago and were able to compromise. They also mediated during the 1990’s, according to Sieck.
Teachers such as Hallstrom hope that the outcome of the meetings results in better compensation for teachers.
“We need to give [teachers] enough of a salary increase that they feel valued,” Hallstrom said. “It’s a terrible thing for morale when your workload increases and there’s no increase in compensation.”
According to McNeive, mediation is successful 80-85 percent of the time. Once representatives from both the NEA and SMSD have reached an agreement, that contract will be accepted or rejected by members of the NEA.