BKW teachers get 10-year pact, 5.5% in raises overall

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Big decisions: Vasilios Lefkaditis, vice president of the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board, and board member Earl Barcomb argue during the April 21 meeting where the budget proposal and an agreement with the teachers’ union were adopted. Lefkaditis voted against the budget, with the four other board members in favor, and he abstained from the vote on a memorandum of agreement for the contract, citing a lack of information.

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Conflicting projections: Interim Superintendent Lonnie Palmer looks over a breakdown of the school’s budgeting figures at the April 21 board meeting where the board adopted a $21.9 million budget.

BERNE — A divided school board adopted an agreement with the Berne-Knox-Westerlo Teachers’ Association on Monday, five years after its last contract expired.

The memorandum of agreement includes a one-time payment from the district’s fund balance of $180,000 to be divided among 80-some current teachers, for the years of an expired contract, as an incentive to settle. It also includes a 5.5-percent total increase to future salaries until 2018-19.

Interim Superintendent Lonnie Palmer said the agreement is projected to be a net savings for the district, largely because of reductions in health-insurance costs that will save the district about $17,000 more than the extra cost of the salaries. It explicitly calls for an end to the previous practice of calculating premium contributions, known as “nesting,” which inflated the district’s share.

The April 21 board meeting was long and contentious, as it was when an agreement with the BKW Teacher Support Staff was passed in January. The votes both times were the same, with three votes in favor — President Joan Adriance, Chasity McGivern, and Earl Barcomb — and two abstentions, from Vasilios Lefkaditis and Gerald Larghe. For both agreements, Lefkaditis, the board’s vice president, suggested the numbers used to reflect costs and savings were different from his own projections and asked other board members to postpone their decision — a motion that was voted down on Monday by the same three members who passed the agreement.

“I have never ever encountered a board member who thought it was their role to take the data that the business office provides, and go through it line-by-line and say, ‘This is wrong,…” said Palmer, adding that the projections for the financial impact of the agreement made by Interim Business Official Mark Kellett were accurate.

Palmer said Lefkaditis’s actions undermined administrators’ credibility. “It’s part of reason that it’s difficult for this district to get another superintendent to come here,” he said.

 “You’ll be gone when we find out you were wrong,” Lefkaditis told Palmer before the vote to postpone the agreement failed. Palmer’s one-year contract will be over this summer. Adriance said after the meeting that the board will interview for another one-year interim superintendent.

Lefkaditis, who is running for a second three-year term starting in July, cited a lack of information in his abstention on Monday. Larghe said he abstained because the agreement did not include a method of rewarding teachers who perform well.

“We missed Gerry’s suggestion, and that was our error,” Palmer said of including in negotiations Larghe’s desire to reward good teachers. He said the district’s attorney, Jeffrey D. Honeywell, advised that the idea wouldn’t be received well by teachers, that it hasn’t worked well in other districts.

The teachers’ union, affiliated with New York State United Teachers, will vote on the agreement on Thursday. It has more than 80 members and represents nurses, and guidance counselors, as well as teachers.

In 2007, the union’s contract with the district expired. It was extended with two one-year memorandums of agreement until 2009. The agreement adopted by the school board extends the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement from 2009 to 2019.

In addition to the agreement on their contract, teachers negotiated an agreement with the district for Annual Professional Performance Review, a state-required evaluation system that, Palmer said, resulted last year in several teachers being erroneously labeled as “ineffective.”

APPR is negotiated annually in each school district. At BKW, teachers’ scores leading to labels are based on state tests, observations, and local assessments. The 20 percent portion of each teacher’s score based on local assessments didn’t reflect some teachers’ performances last year, Palmer said, because tests were given that didn’t match the curricula very well.

Part of the plan

The teachers’ union is the district’s largest. The fourth and last bargaining agreement not settled is with the Civil Service Employees’ Association unit. Salaries and benefits that the collective bargaining agreements outline account for the lion’s share of the district’s $21.9 million budget, as is typical of school districts.

Palmer called the lump-sum payment and health-insurance savings his two “bargaining chips” in negotiations. He said being an interim superintendent made negotiations easier.

“The board and the teachers knew they had one year to get this settled,” said Palmer. The two bargaining sides had become frustrated and misinformed, he said. The board felt like teachers were asking for unreasonable provisions, but Palmer said that wasn’t accurate.

With the agreement, Palmer believes the morale among teachers and board members will improve and lead to better academic performance because the people instructing students are supported.

The agreement is a large piece of the plan adopted by Palmer and the school board majority; they have reduced non-teaching positions, freeing up money for instruction. Settling contracts was one of the top goals set by the board this year, after improving academic performance.

Palmer said his proposal for the negotiations was to get salaries close to the average for the area, and to smooth its step increases, so there are fewer teachers on plateaus. He compared BKW’s salaries and benefits to those of surrounding districts. His proposal was slightly higher than the average, and the agreed-upon salary schedule starts below the average, rises above in steps five through eight, then follows the average closely until dipping below in steps 19 through 26. The last few steps are well above the average.

Guilderland, a nearby suburban district, was among the districts used to determine the average pay for teachers in the area, which Lefkaditis criticized.

For comparison, Guilderland teachers’ salary schedule this year goes from $47,600 to $73,206 on step 23, the top step. Under the new BKW agreement, the salary schedule goes from $38,350 to $67,576 on step 23, but continues to $86,874 on step 30. In 2014-15 and onward, the BKW contract has just 29 steps.

10-year agreement

For the years 2013-14 to 2018-19, the new agreement raises salaries overall on top of yearly scheduled increases not at all the first year, 1 percent each of the following three years, and 1.25 percent each of the two years after. These do not include the one-time payment.

Palmer said the average settlement in the region is between 0.8 and 1.5 percent.

Under state labor relations law, the scheduled salary step increases in a contract continue when its term is expired.

With the new agreement, a teacher on the final and 29th step in 2014-15 would earn $87,569, and a new teacher the same year would earn $38,734, according to the new schedule for employees with bachelor of arts degrees. A teacher on the final step in the last year of the agreement would earn $90,405. A new teacher that year would start out at $40,506. Salaries can vary by the individual, based on levels of education and extra responsibilities in the district.

“The one-time payment is more than reasonable considering the new salary schedule only adds up to a 5.5 percent in total increase above what the teachers were legally entitled to receive in increment,” Palmer said in a prepared statement. “Meanwhile, inflation has risen 9 percent since 2009 and will only go higher between now and 2019.”

Instead of a retroactive salary schedule, the $180,000 lump-sum payment is to be divided equally and pro-rated among the union’s more than 80 teachers who worked under the expired contract. The memorandum leaves the method of payment open to other arrangements.

From July 2014, the district will be responsible for a less costly health-insurance plan, according to the new memorandum. Union members can have more expensive plans, but they have to pay the difference between those plans and the base Empire PPO (Preferred Provider Organization) plan.

Employee contributions for health-insurance premiums are also changed to save money for the district, with plans requiring increased contributions across the life of the agreement. For an individual plan, employees pay 5 percent the first year, and up to 13 percent the final year. For family and two-party plans, the numbers are 10 percent up to 17 percent.

Any new members after July this year will contribute 13 percent toward individual plans and 17 percent toward a dependent’s plan. New members will also contribute to health insurance when they retire at the same percentages they paid as an active employee at the time of retirement.

The premium contributions for future retirees change, as well, up to 6.5 percent for individual plans and up to 14 percent for family and two-party plans.

Drug co-pays will rise for teachers, with a financial incentive to use cheaper, generic drugs. They will pay $5 for generic drugs, $20 for preferred drugs, and $35 for non-preferred. A 90-day mail-order drug co-pay will cost two co-pays, depending on which type of drug is used.

The agreement refers to a future agreement to give members voluntary access to CANARx, which the district has the right to discontinue. After July 2016, the parties have the right to renegotiate the provisions for health, prescription, or dental insurance. The agreement calls for a health-insurance committee, starting next year and open to other unions, to monitor insurance benefits in the district.

A health-insurance buy-out is included in the agreement. If a member chooses coverage outside of the district, he or she can be paid $3,000 annually. Married employees are limited to one family plan, one two-person plan, or two individual plans, and they are eligible for buy-outs.

For a $4,000 annual stipend, teachers can voluntarily take on a sixth teaching assignment at the secondary school, starting this summer. Elementary-school teachers who are appointed as professional learning community leaders will receive an annual stipend of $952.

As an incentive to induce retirements — which saves the district money because new hires are typically paid less and will use the adjusted benefits — the agreement includes a temporary provision for members to retire with their benefits unchanged by the agreement, and it increases a $10,000 severance payment by $5,000.

Palmer said the district pays more than $138,000 for retirees’ insurance each month.

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