ADRIENNE WAHL

It came down to the wire for the teachers and school board of USD 413 to reach a compromise for the professional agreement that entails their salaries, benefits and working schedule. 

The agreement was ratified Monday afternoon, with a slim approval rating by the teachers of 65-53 after the board approved the tentative agreement Thursday evening in a special meeting. The compromise consisted of a base pay raise of $1,600 for the 2019-20 school year, with an additional $1,000 in 2020-21.  The policy regarding cancelled school days was also changed. Originally, if school had been cancelled on teacher work day without students, it had to be made up as a work day, but that is now at the board’s discretion.  The final major change was the creation of two committees of teachers to study supplemental and early retirement benefits, with their findings to be discussed in next year’s negotiations. The full agreement will be available on the district’s website in approximately two weeks, according to Superintendent Dr. Kellen Adams. 

Had the agreement not been ratified, a federal mediator was scheduled to come on Friday. 

Historically, negotiations in USD 413 have been done in one day, according to Chanute National Education Association (CNEA) President Rose Fox. This is Fox’s first year at the helm of the organization that negotiates teacher contracts. 

“Negotiation has always been so amicable and done relatively quickly in a day,” she said. “This year’s offers were back and forth. It took a lot more time to get to an agreement.” 

Initially, the board offered a raise of $500 to the base salary with no additional money. This was offered at a meeting in the beginning of June that Fox said lasted well into the evening, estimating that they left at approximately 10 pm. Uniserv Southeast Director Tony White said that CNEA originally wanted a $2,400 raise to the base pay in the first year, with a three percent increase in the second year. He said that those numbers were based upon the expected $770,000 in new money the district was supposed to receive. This was before a video was released in mid-June with Kansas Department of Education deputy commissioner and other education leaders at the state level – including Kansas State Board of Education Jim Porter recommending that districts spend half of the new money on teacher salaries in an effort to make up what had been lost to the recession and other school funding fiascos. Regarding the funding, it was a recommendation, not actually written into legislation. 

“Some places took it to heart, some places like Chanute, we didn’t quite get there,” White said.

The expected $770,000 was reduced to $709,000 after an adjustment for enrollment numbers. Adams explained that the new money was split into several different areas, some expected and some not. There was an unexpected $129,371 assessment from the ANW special education cooperative; a raise for the classified staff that amounted to $105,000; increased participation in the health insurance in the amount of $70,800; and a worker’s compensation premium increase of $10,000. The new money also hired another band teacher at Royster Middle School and an additional Student Resource Officer, among other things. After everything else, there was $135,586 left of the new money for negotiation purposes. 

They met again in July, with the teachers coming down to a $1,900 raise in the first year. The board wouldn’t budge over $1,200. It was officially at an impasse. Teachers met again at the end of July when they asked the board for another negotiations meeting. That took place last Wednesday at the district office, packed with concerned teachers as well as White, David Cunningham who represented the board, and board members Cassie Cleaver and Gary Wheeler. 

After some back and forth, the tentative agreement of the $1,600 and $1,000 was offered, but that exceeded the authority of Cleaver and Disbrow who agreed to ask for a special board meeting to approve it. That happened the very next day, and after a 40-minute executive session, was approved unanimously by the board and then ratified by CNEA. 

The agreement makes the base salary for a teacher in USD 413 $43,700, with an average increase of 4.6 percent for returning teachers. According to Adams, the district is now the fourth-highest in the state, and is the highest in southeast Kansas. Figures were not available for this year, but Iola’s USD 257’s base salary for 2018-19 was $36,640, versus the $42,100 in Chanute. 

USD 413 is by far the most financially solvent district in the area, with a reported $10,055,375 in leftover funds as of July 1, 2018. Labette County is the second most cash-rich with $4,185,356. Adams didn’t have an explanation for the vast discrepancy, but asserted that it took numerous years to accumulate that much money. A possible explanation was that with the new buildings, came additional funds for the first four years and he believed that extra was put into a contingency fund, in addition to underspending amounts in the general fund. There was once a state statute capping contingency budgets at 10 percent of the overall budget, but that was abolished in the experimental days of block funding for schools in the early 2010s. Adams said that the contingency funds were often used to cover the cash-flow issues that the district experiences in the fall because the county pays out in January and June. 

“We have a cash-flow issue from the county and we need to be able to cover payroll in the fall, so we borrow from contingency,” he said. 

Overall, it was a relief for everyone to have it settled before the school year began. Fox said that she was very proud of how hard her negotiating team worked all summer. Now that negotiations are over, White is glad that teachers can focus on their students. 

“We now have a binding contract,” White said. “It’s time to get to work – the kids are coming.”

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