CONWAY — The Conway School Board and the Conway Education Association (teachers union) have reached a tentative agreement on what would be the second three-year teacher contract in a row.
The cost of the contract, which would have to be approved by voters on April 14, is estimated to be $133,498 for the first year (2020-21), $600,719 for 2021-22 and $315,516 for 2022-23.
The new contract would create a larger step pay program for experienced teachers, going from 10 steps up to 45, to help the district attract and retain veteran educators. There was also a significant change in health insurance. Teachers proposed going from a $500 to a $1,500 deductible plan. At the moment, teachers receive a district-funded card to cover the deductible, but under the new agreement, the card would be eliminated in the second year of the contract.
Joe Lentini (chairman), Joe Mosca and Jessica Whitelaw negotiated for the board, while Darcy Kane, Sean Littlefield, Kim Mathison and Chris Bailey (co-president with Matt Liebenow) represented the union. Mathison and Lentini were the lead negotiators at the table.
Members of the Conway Municipal Budget Committee voted unanimously (14-0) to support the contract at its budget hearing on Wednesday night.
“That’s never happened before in my 22 years here,” Bailey said by phone on Thursday. “There have been a few years where the committee supported it, but only by a very small margin. It was great to see that show of support.”
Lentini likes the contract.
“For me, what was most important is that the CEA and the school board team worked cooperatively to fulfill the directive from the strategic plan which says, ‘We will recruit, recognize and develop the most effective personnel,’” he said Thursday. “By expanding the step system, which capped at 10 steps, teachers can see where they will be if they stay in our district, which is important for retaining quality teachers. Anyone looking at coming to our district will not be penalized if they come to our district with more than 10 years of experience and will get credit for the full breadth of their experience.”
Superintendent Kevin Richard was pleased with how negotiations went. “Both sides were outstanding throughout the entire process,” he said. “They went into negotiations using the community-created Conway School District Strategic Plan as their guide. I think there was give and take, and open dialogue the whole time.”
Bailey said the sides also used “interest-based bargaining,” to broker a deal.
“It becomes a discussion of what is most beneficial, obviously the kids are at the center of it all, and then it’s the teachers and the community,” he said. “You need to talk about what’s needed and what’s reasonable.”
During negotiations, Richard said insurance companies were brought in. “They really studied the big issues,” he said. “There was a balanced conversation the whole way through. It was really refreshing. They talked about how to recruit and retain people.”
Richard said, the new contract if approved in April, will lift “the hiring cap and will allow me a little more latitude in hiring.”
“Right now and in the past, once you got off-step, with every contract, especially when you’re doing yearly ones, it becomes a Band-Aid and what to do for people who are off-step," Bailey explained. "With these new steps, it levels the playing field, treating everyone fairly. If you stay in the district you have an idea (of your earning potential).”
There is also an increase in starting teacher salaries. At the moment, the starting teacher salary for this district is $36,900 (according to the state department of education the minimum starting salary average is $39,048), in the new agreement it would increase to $38,007 next year, to $39,617 in year two and $40,431 in the final year.
“There are a lot of good things,” Richard said, “and yet at the same time there are some huge changes to health insurance that saves the district a ton of money and provides more opportunity to the employees.”
“We recognize that when health insurance goes up, our costs go up, too,” said Bailey as the teachers currently pay 20 percent of the health insurance premiums and the district pays the rest. “Our incentives to make the change were to save teachers and the taxpayers money.”
Lentini likes a multi-year agreement as it brings, “stability for the teachers, stability for our budgeting. Teachers can see that the school board and the community support them in the important job they do.”
“A multi-year deal is great for morale,” added Bailey. “It gives you some certainty over a few years.”
Board members discussed the potential agreement at their Jan. 27 meeting.
“I’m very excited about the changes that we've made and the progress that we've made in the past six years in order to improve the work environment for our entire staff,” said board member Michelle Capozzoli.
“I’d particularly like to thank Joe Mosca and Jess Whitelaw who were on the committee, which went on forever,” Lentini said. “We started in September and we didn't finish up until two weeks ago.”
The sides met for more than 70 hours.
“Lots of good conversations,” Whitelaw said.
“Yes, lots of good conversation,” replied Lentini. “This is groundbreaking for where this sets us up. And I have to say I personally am thrilled with the CEA negotiating team and how positive they were to work with. We went through the contract line by line and we corrected so many little things along the way — it was a really positive experience.”
The contract is being recommended by the Conway School Board, 6-0-1 (Randy Davison abstained as his wife is a teacher in the district).
Davison, a teacher in MSAD 72 and on the union negotiating team there, likes this contract.
“With that contract getting approved by the board (and ultimately voters in April), this district can now hire experienced educators for this district. Prior to that, we had a lot of people that were very worthy candidates that are willing to come here, but when they saw the salary scale and the pay loss that they were taking from the districts they were coming from, they didn't come here. So, I think that it's a major plus for this district.”
“What Randy is referring to is that up until the new contract goes into effect, there were 10 steps that teachers could go up to, 12 if you had a masters, but at that point you stopped,” Lentini explained. “Then there were little fill-in ways to take care of teachers beyond that point.
“It also meant if somebody came in with 18 years of experience, and was a highly qualified teacher, you could only hire them level 10 which was an incredible disincentive (instead at step 18),” he continued. “Now there's a 45-step program, it’s a totally open-ended system in which we are thrilled with the CEA for working with us to get this done and to work on changes in the insurance program to allow us to afford to do this. It was a massive undertaking on everybody's part.”