Union, school board reach tentative deal

BAR HARBOR — After months of contentious bargaining sessions and charges of unfair labor practices leveled by each side against the other, the school system board and the teachers union have reached a tentative agreement on a new three-year contract for teachers, guidance counselors and librarians. 

The details of the agreement will not be made public until the school committees in each of the towns in the school district and the teachers associations at each of the schools have voted to ratify it. Both groups were scheduled to vote Wednesday. 

The new contract appears likely to include a significant salary increase for teachers over the next three years. If approved, the agreement will be retroactive to Sept. 1. The previous three-year contract expired Aug. 31. 

Jessica Stewart, chair of the Mount Desert Island School System board, and Daniel Horning, president of the MDI Education Association, the teachers union, announced the tentative collective bargaining agreement late Monday afternoon. 

We thank our communities and members for their patience and perseverance throughout this process,” they said in a joint statement. “We look forward to continuing our work together to provide excellent public education.” 

As of early October, the union had proposed an aggregate raise for teachers of 18.2 percent over three years. But in a revised proposal presented to school board negotiators Nov. 30, the union asked for an aggregate three-year wage increase of 17 percent. 

The school board had previously offered a 15 percent raise over the three years of the contract. So, it seems likely that the tentative agreement calls for a salary increase in the range of 15-17 percent. 

The school board and the union had initially proposed different schedules for salary increases, with the school board favoring a more gradual phase-in. 

But in a Nov. 30 posting on the union’s website, union leaders said they were “open to looking at different details…of ways to rearrange the [salary] scale to reflect the aggregate percentage increase.” 

This came after a three-member fact-finding panel convened by the Maine Labor Relations Board (MLRB) reviewed the positions of the two sides in the contract dispute and rendered an advisory opinion. 

The panel unanimously recommended that the salary scale for teachers proposed by the school system board be adopted as part of a new contract. At the same time, the panel indicated the school system probably should be covering more of the cost of teachers’ health insurance. 

The fact-finding panel consisted of the union’s attorney, a Maine Department of Education facilitator who represented the school board and a neutral member who served as the panel’s chair. 

The panel met on Oct. 8 and submitted its report and recommendations to the MLRB on Nov. 4. Under state law, that report could not be made public until 30 days after that date. 

The report stated that the position of the school board was that teachers in the MDI school district – designated by the state as AOS 91 – currently make “considerably more” than teachers in surrounding districts. 

“The employer has proposed increasing teacher salaries so that new teachers will earn almost $6,000 more annually than teachers in nearby school districts, veteran teachers with a BA will earn nearly $15,000 more, and $13,000 more for teachers with an MA,” the panel’s report said. 

“The employer’s proposal continues to accelerate the pace of salary increases by reducing the number of steps during the course of the next three years from 26 to 18. As teachers will reach the top of the scale eight years earlier, this will increase the career earnings of AOS 91 teachers considerably. The focus is on the top of the scale because starting salaries for AOS 91 teachers are already relatively high.” 

The position of the teachers union, as stated in the fact-finding panel’s report, was: “Although AOS 91 ranks on the higher end of economically fortunate school administrative units in Maine, Five Town CSD [in the Camden area] is an example of a comparable area with salary scales significantly higher than AOS 91…There is a substantial gap in the career earnings of AOS 91 teachers and teachers in Five Town CSD…” 

The fact-finding panel’s report outlined the solution that the teachers union proposed: 

“To remedy this lag in career earnings, the association has proposed compressing the salary scale from 26 steps to 13 steps in the first year of the agreement. Other, poorer school districts in Washington County have agreed to compress their teacher salary scales to 12-15 years, with aggregate percentage increases that are higher than what AOS 91 has proposed.”  

The MLRB fact-finding panel concluded: “Teacher salaries in AOS 91 are quite a bit higher than in surrounding school districts. Five Town CSD is not an entirely comparable school district; it…is quite distant from AOS 91, and Five Town CSD exists solely to provide a high school for the surrounding school districts and does not contain any K-8 schools. 

“There is agreement that the salary scale should be compressed, and we recommend the employer’s phased-in proposal,” the fact-finding panel said. “That proposal contains significant increases in teacher salaries but is economically feasible.” 

The school system’s share of teachers’ health insurance costs has been another point of contention between the school board and the union. 

“The employer wants to maintain the status quo for health insurance, which is to pay 82 percent of the premiums in all categories and to fund 80 percent of the plan’s deductible through an HSA (health savings account) for all categories of coverage,” the fact-finding panel said in its report. 

“This additional funding means that the employer effectively covers 88 percent of the premiums plus deductible for family coverage, 90 percent for two adults and 92 percent for adults with children.” 

On the other side of the table, the panel said, “The [teachers] association proposes maintaining the status quo for health insurance during the first year of the agreement but increasing coverage for all plans to 84 percent in the second year and 87 percent in the third year, while maintaining the HSA funding.” 

On Nov. 30, the teachers association submitted a revised proposal for health insurance in which it increased its proposal for the employer’s contribution in the second year from 84 percent to 85 percent, but reduced it for the third year from 87 percent to 85 percent. 

The MLRB fact-finding panel said in its report: “Although the employer does provide the generous benefit of a contribution to an HSA, employees in good health who take single coverage are less likely to use this benefit than employees with family coverage, and it is employees with single coverage who are receiving a lower employer contribution towards premiums than in comparable districts.” 

But the panel said that because the teachers association did not provide information about the cost of its health insurance proposal, “we could not evaluate its feasibility.” 

“In light of this, and in considering the salary and insurance proposals of the parties, we recommend adding $45,000 per year to the budget for years two and three of the contract,” the panel said. “This can be used for enhanced salary increases or to bridge the difference in the Employer’s contribution to health insurance premiums…” 

The fact-finding panel’s recommendations were just that — recommendations only.  

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. [email protected]