Posters displayed by two businesses on Main Street in Northeast Harbor support Mount Desert Island Regional School System teachers in their current contract negotiations. ISLANDER PHOTO BY DICK BROOM

Pay gap cited in teacher talks



BAR HARBOR — Teachers in the Mount Desert Island Regional School System (MDIRSS) make less money on average and pay more for health insurance than teachers in what the Maine Education Association (MEA) says are comparable school districts in Maine.

The MDIRSS teachers are using those comparisons to press for higher salaries and a smaller share of insurance costs in their current contract negotiations with a panel of school system board members.

In a meeting last Monday at the Somesville fire station, MEA staff members and local teachers’ union leaders gave a presentation to several dozen MDIRSS teachers on how their salaries and benefits compare to those in five other Maine school districts that are highly ranked academically. Those districts, which were described as being similar to the MDIRSS, serve Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth, Westbrook, Yarmouth and high school students in Camden, Rockport, Lincolnville, Appleton and Hope.

The meeting last week for MDIRSS teachers was closed to the press. But the MEA, the state teachers union, has provided the Islander with charts that were shown, along with explanations of the information on the charts and “talking points” for presenters.

One chart showed that MDIRSS teachers with various levels of education make less than their counterparts in the comparison districts and that the more education they have, the farther they lag behind in compensation. For example, according to the MEA, the average starting salary for an MDIRSS teacher with only a bachelor’s degree ranks 36th out of 155 school districts in Maine, while the average starting salary for a teacher with the highest level of education listed in the salary schedule — two master’s degrees or a doctorate — ranks 70th.

Another chart showed that in 2005, the salary for a first-year MDIRSS teacher with a bachelor’s degree was slightly higher than those in the five comparison school districts. But between 2005 and 2011, MDIRSS starting salaries went from highest to lowest.

For the 2006-2007 school year, a first-year MDIRSS teacher with a bachelor’s degree made $31,200, which was 4.11 percent higher than the average of the five other districts. For the current school year, the starting salary for new MDIRSS teachers is $36,236, which is 8.78 percent below the five-district average.

“The average of our five comparison schools has increased by almost $10,000, while ours has only increased by $5,036,” one presenter said.

However, starting teachers in the MDIRSS earn on average $2,360 more than the average salary for starting teachers statewide, which is $33,876.

The average salary of all teachers in Maine in 2016-2017 was $52,143, which was the lowest of the six New England states. The average salary for all MDIRSS teachers was $51,520, about 1.2 percent below the Maine average.

An MEA comparison of cost-of-living increases and the salaries of MDIRSS teachers between 2007 and 2017 indicated that salaries have not kept up with inflation.

“This means that teachers in our district actually have less real purchasing power now …,” one of the talking points reads. “This is not how we send a signal that we value the work that teachers do.”

Along with salaries, health insurance costs are said to be a major issue in the current teacher contract negotiations.

The MEA officials and local teachers’ union leaders told the MDIRSS teachers at last week’s meeting that they pay more for the same coverage than do their counterparts in the five comparison districts.

Under the current contract, which was signed in 2015, MDIRSS schools pay 82 percent of premiums for plans offered by the MEA Benefits Trust, which contracts with Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield. Teachers pay 18 percent.

According to the MEA, all five of the comparison districts pay a higher percentage of the premium costs for the same plan, and two of them pay 100 percent for teachers who opt for single coverage.

For all teachers with all levels of coverage — single to family — MDIRSS schools pay an average of $12,496 for health insurance. The average in the comparison districts is $13,289, with Yarmouth averaging a high of $13,411.

Members of the MDIRSS board have said in the past that the amount the local schools pay for teachers’ health insurance is unsustainable.

Superintendent Marc Gousse said in a recent interview with the Islander, “I think it is very important that we negotiate a fair and respectful offer with our teachers. It behooves [everyone] to have a collective bargaining agreement in place that honors our existing staff, retains great people and also is a vehicle to attract new staff.

“At the same time, we have a responsibility to our communities to make sure we are fiscally responsible with our resources,” Gousse said. “The goal is to balance that.”

The contract negotiating teams for the teachers and the school board have agreed not to speak publicly about the negotiations. But according to several people with knowledge of the talks, the two sides have brought in a professional mediator to try to break a deadlock.

A difficult history

It isn’t known to what extent, if any, the current impasse is influenced by lingering hard feelings from the contract negotiations three years ago, which were very difficult and protracted. Then, too, the two sides engaged a mediator to help move the talks along.

Under the three-year contract that went into effect Sept. 1, 2015, the base pay for starting elementary school teachers went up $727 a year for each year of the contract. For the first year, that represented a 2.13 percent increase over the previous base salary of $34,055.

More-experienced teachers received larger raises, with the salary going up for every year that someone had taught. Teachers with advanced degrees also received more pay.

For example, for someone who had taught for 25 years and held two master’s degrees or a doctorate, their salary for the first year of the contract was $64,080.

But while the 2015 contract gave teachers more money, it also required them to pay a slightly larger share of their health insurance costs.

Previously, each school paid 85 percent of the cost of “single, two-adult, family or adult-with-child[ren]” plans, with the employee picking up 15 percent. Under the new contract, the schools’ share dropped to 83 percent for each of the first two years and to 82 percent for this, the third year.

Although a majority of teachers at each school eventually voted to ratify the contract in 2015, a significant number of them were not happy with it.

“We were surprised by the board’s hard-line stances in general and specifically about health insurance benefits,” stated a letter to the MDIRSS board signed by several dozen teachers. “We are being asked to work harder than ever before, but we were met with a negotiating board that did not hear our concerns or, seemingly, honor our work with financial recognition.”

As a result, the letter stated, teachers felt “under-appreciated and under attack.”

Members of the school board’s negotiating team said at the time that teachers are appreciated and deserve to be adequately compensated. But that had to be balanced, they said, with keeping salaries and health insurance costs from overburdening taxpayers.

“Our goal has always been to figure out how we can get the most for the teachers and stay within what we believe is our fiscal responsibility to the towns,” said Skip Strong, then chairman of the MDIRSS board and leader of the board’s negotiating team.

Teacher pay: What’s fair is complicated

BAR HARBOR — A comparison of the salaries and benefits of teachers in the Mount Desert Island Regional School System with those in five other school districts in Maine is not necessarily an apples-to-apples proposition.

That’s because the school districts are structured differently and have different models for school funding.

The Maine Education Association and leaders of the teachers’ unions in the MDI Regional School System schools have cited the disparity in pay and health insurance benefits between MDIRSS teachers and those in Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth, Westbrook and Yarmouth, as well as Camden Hills High School, which serves students in five towns.

In general, most of the money for operating schools and paying teachers comes from local property taxes.

According to the Property Tax Division of Maine Revenue Services, the combined property valuation of the four MDI towns and Trenton is $5.13 billion. That is more than twice the tax base of four of the comparison school districts and significantly higher than the fifth.

But, while taxpayers in each of those districts collectively fund their district’s schools, taxpayers in each of the MDIRSS towns support their own elementary school. Taxpayers in the four MDI towns also support the high school, and Trenton pays tuition for its students to attend MDI High School.

Both Westbrook and the town of Mount Desert have a tax base of just over $2 billion. In Westbrook, that supports an elementary school, a middle school and a high school. Mount Desert taxpayers fund an elementary school and provide a percentage of the budget for the high school.

Tremont, which also funds an elementary school and a share of the high school budget, has a tax base of $498 million. While Tremont’s population of around 1,600 is roughly 76 percent of Mount Desert’s, its tax base is only about 23 percent as large as that of its more property-rich neighbor.

Nevertheless, teachers in Tremont, Mount Desert and the other MDIRSS towns all are covered by the same contract, with the same salary scale and health insurance benefits. That means that funding for school budgets, of which teacher salaries and benefits are the largest components, is more of a burden on the average taxpayer in MDIRSS towns with relatively low property valuations.

Although the elementary schools on the Cranberry Isles, Frenchboro and Swans Island are part of the MDIRSS, their teachers are not covered by the school district’s common teacher contract.

Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. dbroom@mdislander.com

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