The Wyoming Area School District teachers union announced plans to go on strike Wednesday if the School Board rejects a non-binding arbitration ruling at a special board meeting tonight.
It would be a one-day strike, union President Melissa Dolman said.
Board acceptance of the arbitration proposal seems unlikely. The arbitration was mandatory under state law but only requires the arbiter to review the last best offers of each side. The board had already rejected the last union offer, meaning approval of it would require a reversal of that position.
Still, Dolman said she is “hopeful” the board will agree to the arbitration ruling, which the union has already approved, and end four years of bargaining. The last contract expired August 2010, meaning negotiations began that January and teachers have worked under terms of the expired contract since.
Dolman said there is little the board can do to avert the one-day walkout beyond agreeing to the arbitration proposal. “It will definitely be held if they vote no,” she said.
Attorney Jack Dean, the district’s lead negotiator, saw that ultimatum as an unveiled threat.
“The board is going to meet tomorrow night and vote on this,” Dean said. “I’m disappointed the union made a threat, and the union should save its threats for the faint of heart.”
Dolman and Dean said the two sides have not met since the first strike ended Oct. 4 as required by a state law in order to allow students to complete 180 days of school by June 15. But Dean said he has had meetings and conversations with union lead negotiator John Holland in that time, “talking about various issues.”
Dean said if the board does reject the arbitration proposal tonight, members “will be ready to go forward with another session.”
State law allows unions to strike twice in one school year, with arbitration mandated between strikes. The second strike must end in time for students to complete 180 days by June 30. The numerous snow day cancellations during the long winter effectively wiped out any strike beyond one day for Wyoming Area’s 161 unionized teachers.
In a media release, the union argued the arbitration proposal and a previous proposal by a fact-finder in 2011 both showed the district can afford to pay for the union offers. Dean has repeatedly said the fact finder deal is “stale” because so much has changed since then.
When the arbitration ruling came out last week, he said the district cannot afford it without raising taxes beyond a state-set limit.
That limit, known as the Act 1 index after the law that created it, varies from year to year and district to district but has hovered around 2 and 3 percent over the prior year’s tax rate in recent years. If a district wants to exceed the Act 1 index, it must either win state approval for an exception under a handful of legal reasons, or get voter approval.
Dean contends the teacher proposal accepted by the arbiter would require $2 million to $3 million more than the district would bring in if tax increases are kept within the Act 1 limit.
A key dispute in the negotiations has been salary. Teacher contracts include a “step/column” matrix, giving annual raises for a set number of years (steps), and giving raises for completion of a set number of college credits (columns). Beginning with a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree as step one, column one, Wyoming Area’s contract has 16 steps and 16 columns.
Unions typically negotiate for increases across all steps, and/or columns.
The school board proposed a 5-year contract while the union proposed six. Both proposed a step increase (about 2.5 percent) for 2010-11 with no additional raises beyond a $500 stipend for teachers at the top of the ladder, but after that they diverge.
Under the board’s plan, in 2011-2012, teachers would move a step on paper but the pay increase would be deferred one year. In 2012-2013 and 2013-2014, teachers would move one step plus a 0.25 percent increase. The final year of the deal would be a step movement plus 0.5 percent.
Under the union proposal, in 2011-2012 employees would move a step with a stipend of $750 for those at the top. In 2012-2013 they would get step plus a 0.5 percent increase and an $800 stipend for top step employees. In 2013-2014 and 2014-2015, it would be step plus a 0.75 percent raise each year and an $800 stipend. In the final year it would be step plus 1 percent and an $850 stipend.