BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – The Fort Madison teacher’s union is asking for $800 on their base pay and an increase in health insurance stipends, while the district is offering $349 on the base with no step movement, a difference of about $304,000.
The proposals were shared Monday afternoon to start the negotiation process at Fort Madison’s central office with Fort Madison school board members Dianne Hope and Josh Wykert, Fort Madison Superintendent Dr. Erin Slater, and Emily Ellingson, the district’s attorney, on hand for the district.
Kerry Cooper, Fort Madison Education Association’s chief negotiator, outlined the initial proposal with six other committee members and about 24 other teachers all adorned in black FMEA T-shirts that read FMEA Proud/Strong/Unified.
Step increases are gradual increases for teachers based on tenure and increased education up to a maximum amount. For example, a teacher with a master’s degree would be on a separate step increment scale than a teacher with a bachelor’s degree. Both get increased pay based on years of service thresholds.
“If ever there was a time to show educators grace and professional courtesy, it is now,” Cooper said, referring to the obstacles created by the COVID pandemic.
“Teachers have gone to extraordinary lengths to keep students engaged academically and socially, risking their own health and putting aside time with their own families to ensure their students have the support they need.”
Cooper said for three out of the past four years the district has presented an initial offering of $0 on the base.
“We are here to negotiate with the district to reach a settlement agreement that reflects the work the teachers are doing,” Cooper said.
Citing Basic Educational Data Survey (BEDS) numbers, Cooper said the Fort Madison district ranks 322 out of 327 in the state as far as health coverage benefits. She also pointed to state data that showed Fort Madison teachers’ contract settlement has been below the state average for the past four years at a 1.6% overall increase in compensation, while the state average has been 2.4%.
After the proposals were offered, Cooper said it’s important for younger teachers to get step increases because it affects their IPERS, which is the Iowa Public Employee Retirement System. Those contributions and ultimate payouts are based on formulas derived in part on individual employees compensation over their tenure with the state.
“That’s the thing. We have to keep going on our steps. That’s where it hurts our IPERS,” Cooper said. “I understand where they’re trying to make it better for older teachers like me that are (maxed), but our younger teachers – they have to keep moving across that pay scale,” she said.
The union also asked for an increase in the stipend that covers the Wellmark Health Plan of Iowa’s Blue Choice Insurance Plan offered to union employees.
FMCSD Board President Dianne Hope declined to comment after the initial meeting other than to say the process will be routine.
“I just appreciate everything our teachers are doing,” she said.
The two sides took a five-minute break before convening in closed session to begin the negotiation process.
District Business Manager Sandy Elmore did some quick calculating before the initial meeting broke up and said the teachers’ union proposal amounts to a 3.67% increase or $422,645 with the health benefits request included. The union said they had that calculated at 3.5%.
Ellingson said the district was providing the initial proposal because of requirements of the state’s Public Employee Relations Board with the understanding that the district isn’t planning on settling on their number.
The two entities will negotiate the contact over the next several weeks. The final step should an agreement not be reached between the two would be binding arbitration. According to PERB, the maximum amount allowable under non-public safety arbitration for April would be the corresponding Consumer Price Index of 1%.
Ellingson said the reason behind not offering step increases is to create a more equitable distribution to increases that also reflect the teachers who’ve been with the district the longest.
The activities and nursing schedule would reflect the same offer of the base increase with no step movement. Supplemental contracts would remain the same as the current contract.
Ellingson said the district’s proposal reflects a 1.03% increase in base wages or about $118,960.
According to the Chapter 20 changes that took place in 2017, the district isn’t under any mandate to negotiate anything other than pay.
Slater added that she would like to keep the labor management committee the district got going in 2018 to help foster relations between the union and the district.