Teacher, district talks Stalled | RecordCourier.com

Teacher, district talks Stalled

by Scott Murphy, Staff Writer

Negotiations between Douglas County’s teachers association and the school district have broken down, mainly because of a dispute over health care benefits and no offer of an immediate pay hike by the district.

A lack of agreement over health insurance will send the matter to an arbitrator, said Douglas County Professional Educators Association President Marty Cronin.

The teachers’ association declared an impasse in negotiations last month.

Teachers want the district’s policy of handling health insurance changed. Cronin called the district’s position “intractable.”

“We understand the Legislature has basically tied the district’s hands,” Cronin said. “There’s room for the district to reprioritize its budget to make monies available.”

“There was never a proposal for a pay raise offered by the district,” he said. “They simply chose not to counter or to make an offer.”

However, the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” Cronin said, was the district’s insistence on modifying the approach to the teachers’ health package, without allowing teachers “significant input on benefits or premiums.”

Interim Superintendent John Soderman said health-care costs are a statewide problem for school districts.

“I think it’s unfortunate we’re at an impasse,” Soderman said. “That means we’re going to let somebody else decide what’s best for Douglas County. This way there’s a winner and a loser.”

The association wanted the health-care issue brought into negotiations.

Soderman said teachers’ insistence on getting a 2 percent raise each of the next two years also caused the impasse.

The Legislature didn’t provide for an immediate raise, but did give money for a 2 percent raise next year, Soderman said.

Soderman said funding a raise that isn’t paid for by the Legislature “is a recipe for disaster.”

“To assume an ongoing cost without an ongoing revenue stream doesn’t work in the school district,” Soderman said.

The current system leaves much of the decision-making process regarding health care up to the district before an employee committee reviews changes each year, Cronin said.

Teachers want the health insurance policy made part of the district’s contract negotiations with the education association.

Soderman said the problem is caused by rising health-care costs and lack of new money placed in education by the 2001 Legislature.

Soderman said district health-care costs rose $800,000 for 2001-02 compared with the prior fiscal year.

Soderman said maintaining the district’s control over health benefits is crucial.

“If you can’t control the benefits, you can never control the costs,” he said.

Also, the district faces a $900,000 funding problem next year, Soderman said. Much of that problem is caused by a $500,000 budget cut caused by declining enrollment.

“We already have some serious issues in terms of making ends meet,” Soderman said.

The district and teachers had reached agreement on 10 of 17 items following nine meetings in late 2001, Cronin said.

However, the district devised a “take-it-or-leave-it” package that didn’t include health-care changes sought by teachers.

Soderman said “cherry-picking” items agreed upon between the two sides wouldn’t have helped reach a deal.

Once the issue goes to an arbitrator, both sides will issue a proposal and the arbitrator will either choose one plan, or recommend negotiations re-open.

A resolution could happen by mid-March, Cronin said.

Douglas County teachers are working under a contract that expired June 30, 2001 and was the result of heated negotiations and protests by teachers in spring of 2000.

So-called “evergreen language” contained in the last contract means the deal remains in force until a successor agreement is reached.

Before being submitted for arbitration, the plan goes to the state association counsel who is involved in handling the proceedings. An arbitrator could be selected next month, Cronin said.

Teachers wanted a two-year contract, but arbitrators can only choose one-year contracts, Cronin said.

The teachers association had previously declared an impasse which was followed by the district claiming unfair labor practices and teacher protests in April and May 2000.

The district wanted to eliminate the committee and, Cronin said, decide on what benefits and premiums the teachers would have.

“They don’t want us to have that discussion,” he said. “They want to determine the health-insurance debate before we get to discussing the rest of the contract.

“Now what they’ve proposed would eliminate any of that discourse and leave the decision on benefits and premiums in their hands” that the association claims violates Nevada law, which lists wages, benefits and as items required for a mandatory discussion, Cronin said.

Also, while both sides wait for this issue to be decided, other concerns are left unresolved, Cronin said.

“The impasse doesn’t do much to enhance teacher morale or address any other issues,” he said.

Cronin said teachers hoped that after Dr. Pendery Clark’s resignation in October 2001 that there would be more discussion.

“There’s apparently no desire to go into detail and really hear out the issue” by Soderman and the administration, Cronin said. “The terms of the issues were so far apart there was no way we could end up accepting those terms.”

n Staff Writer Scott Murphy can be reached via e-mail at murph@swiftnews.com