Fact-Finders Hear Arguments

Dozens of teachers and community members listened intently at the Jefferson Elementary School gymnasium Tuesday while a state-appointed impasse committee heard arguments from the Valley City Education Association and the Valley City School Board.
The three-hour impasse hearing was the latest step in ongoing negotiations between the teacher's organization and the VCPS school board. At issue are step increases for teachers, sick pay banking, and health insurance, the largest sticking point being pay increases for teachers and an increase in teacher's base pay.
VCEA chairman Kathy Lentz explained that teachers are currently working under a contract that includes regular step pay increases for most teachers. School board attorney Rachel Bruner-Kaufman explained that when pay negotiation began, the agreement regarding step increases became void.
Teachers also want an increase to their base pay. The base salary for a new teacher in Valley City is currently $33,500. Initially teachers asked for a $1,300 increase. According to Lentz in an earlier interview, the VCEA asked for more than they expected to allow room to negotiate. "We never imagined they wouldn't give us anything," she said.
Through the negotiation and mediation process, the teachers came down to $200 or about a .06 percent increase, which the board still rejected. Lentz pointed out that VCPS Superintendent Dean Koppelman was given an automatic four percent raise this year, which he turned down.
During Tuesday's meeting, Lentz told the committee teachers would no longer be happy with $200, but instead asked for the original $1,300 pay increase.
During the hearing, the committee also heard from concerned teachers, parents, and other community members. While most who testified that they believe teachers deserve pay raises, at least one community member, Jon Wagar, pointed out that Valley City teachers earned about 40 percent more than the North Dakota average for teachers. "You were elected by your neighbors to be the guardians of public funds," Wagar said. I believe that continuing to provide growth to salaries and benefits at an already inflated level is unsustainable," said Wagar.
Most of the teachers and community members, however, spoke in support of teachers and many commented that it would become difficult to attract new, high-quality teachers to a district that was known to violate a contract agreement.
"They (teachers) deserve everybody's respect," said parent Misty Kaufmann. "And I understand that there are some financial things that I don't understand. But I don't think that it's fair to make them suffer for something that hasn't been accounted for over the long run."
Kaufmann referred to a reserve fund that has dwindled to well below the state's recommended balance over the last several years due to unexpected expenses.
The school board had held firm in its desire to rebuild the reserve fund this year, and cites that as the reason for no pay increases.
When addressing the two less contentious issues, health insurance and sick pay banking, Lentz told the committee the VCEA believed that those issues had been ironed-out during mediation, but learned after a school board meeting they had not.
Currently, Valley City Public Schools is on a self-pay plan for health insurance, meaning they put money into a fund, and the teachers pay nothing for their insurance. Once the fund, however, is used up, teachers must start paying.
The VCEA believes an 85/15 split for insurance would be more equitable and less complicated. The teachers have a committee that is willing to study health insurance, and the school board supports a study, but wants a new committee formed that would include two representatives from the teacher's organization, two school board members and Koppelman. The VCEA believes that would make the committee unbalanced in favor of the district.
Currently, retiring teachers who have 150 days of sick time accumulated can "sell" back a portion of those days for $5,000. The VCEA proposed that some teachers – primarily those near retirement who have been stricken by a catastrophic illness, could sell back half of their remaining sick days. Eligibility would be determined by a committee.
The fact-finding commission, which included Valley City resident Jerry Hieb, has
until Oct. 28 to report its findings, which are not binding said chairman Dean Rummel. After that, the parties have 20 days to either accept or reject recommendations.
If a settlement cannot be reached, the fact-finding commission will publish a full-page newspaper ad that will detail the argument and why the commission believes an agreement hasn't been reached. If this happens, the VCEA and the school district would have to split the costs.

Read this story in Thursday's Times-Record.