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Teachers reach tentative agreement with school district

Columbia teachers must approve a tentative deal with the school district next week, or else changes made to teacher contracts won’t go into effect until the 2015 school year.

The Columbia chapter of the National Education Association came to a tentative agreement with Columbia Public Schools late Tuesday evening after months of collective bargaining. The three-year deal needs approval from the teachers before CPS can approve it at its May 12 meeting.

Part of the deal includes catching teachers up to current pay scale. CPS pays teachers based on how long they have worked for the district and their personal degree of education, referred to as “steps.” A teacher’s pay increases for every year they stay in the district. In 2008, CPS froze the pay scale, meaning teachers didn’t receive an increase for that year. The freeze extended into next school year.

CMNEA President Susan McClintic said teachers affected by the pay freeze in the 2009-10 school year will move up a “step” on the scale. For example, an employee who started in 2000-01 would be working their 13th school year this year. However, they would only be on “step” 11 on the pay scale. McClintic, a fifth grade teacher at Alpha Hart Lewis Elementary School, said the pay freeze in 2009-10 affected more teachers than the one in 2008-09.

“These are not really raises,” McClintic said. “This is just restoring what was originally promised through our contracts.”

Dr. Chris Belcher is not on the negotiating committee, but said the pay freeze has caused problems in the district, such as morale issues.

“This was one that had no right or wrong answer,” Belcher said. “It was difficult, because once you freeze salaries, you have inequities in the system. We had some teachers retire, new ones came in, so it’s a mess that still needs to be cleaned up.”

McClintic said restoring teacher compensation to the appropriate level was a high priority for the group at this year’s negotiations. She said 80 percent of teachers the group surveyed wanted the pay scale “unfrozen,” and that data was a compelling factor in the item’s inclusion.

Both McClintic and Dr. Belcher said the uncertainty of state funding for public education stopped the idea of catching teachers up completely on the pay scale.

“We’re trying to say we want these frozen years back or do something, but how much do you commit not knowing what’s going to happen next year, because our legislature has been all over the board,” Dr. Belcher said.

The two sides also agreed to discuss five priority issues each year during collective bargaining. Dr. Belcher said the limit will help keep future negotiations focused. The district originally proposed only one priority item be discussed each year.

McClintic said she wants mandatory planning times for teachers in the next round of discussions, a measure that failed to stick in this year’s negotiations. The time would be uninterrupted so teachers can develop quality lessons for the students, without being pulled away for meetings or other events. She also wants more specific language in teachers’ contracts, such as what time they are expected to be in and out of the building.

The teachers must approve the deal before CPS votes on it. The district next meets May 12. Both parties have until May 15 to take action on the tentative deal for it to affect contracts for the next school year.

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