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Money scarce for teacher salary increases

JULIE SUTORsummit daily news
Summit Daily/Reid WilliamsSummit Middle School teacher Janet McDermott polls students in discussion Tuesday. McDermott is the lead negotiator for the teachers' association in ongoing contract talks. Teachers shouldn't expect salary boosts out of current contract neotiations, scheduled to be complete at the end of the month.
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SUMMIT COUNTY – The economy is slowly gaining steam, and voters agreed in November to fork over millions of dollars to Summit School District through a mill levy and a bond measure.Sounds like a fortuitous time for local teachers to be negotiating a new three-year contract, right?Wrong.”It’s like trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip,” said Janet McDermott, president of the Summit County Education Association (SCEA), the local teachers’ union. “Teachers would like more than the district can give. You’re not going to get everything you want.”The teachers’ contract expires this month, and union members, administrators and school board members have been involved in negotiations for a new contract since November. Paltry increases in state funding have given negotiators little room for maneuvering.”We passed the bond, we passed the mill levy, and it looks like we’re floating in money,” said district superintendent Millie Hamner. “But the amount we asked for in the bond is going to building projects. And the mill levy can only be used for maintenance and technology. And in general, we would argue that Colorado, as a state, is not funding its programs in public education.”

Hamner said the mill levy prevented the administration from having to cut teachers and freeze salaries, but it didn’t grease the wheels for more competitive teacher pay.Under the existing contract, beginning teachers receive a base salary of $30,943 – slightly less than the state average, according to a summer 2004 report issued by the American Federation of Teachers.Local teachers at the low end of the district pay scale receive annual compensation increases of about 6 percent to 7 percent per year, and those on the upper end receive annual raises of 3 percent to 7 percent.The new master contract, due out April 29, is unlikely to contain comparable increases.”It’s not going to be a happy scene,” McDermott said. “The teachers are in maintenance mode. We don’t want things cut, and we don’t want to lose ground. At this point, we’re trying to look at some really interesting things and see what happens if we shift the pieces of the pie around.”

Amendment 23, passed by voters in 2000, requires that public K-12 funding increases at the rate of inflation plus 1 percent. For this year in Summit School District, that increase will only amount to $187,000.The state calculates the rate of inflation through the Denver-Boulder-Greeley Consumer Price Index (CPI), a measure which heavily weights the price of new cars and rental housing – both of which dragged down the calculation for 2004. The CPI came out at a meager 0.1 percent for the year, the lowest inflation increase in 40 years.One of the district’s heaviest expenses is health insurance. District business director Dan Huenneke estimates, in 2005, the district’s bill for providing employee medical benefits will increase by 13 percent – or $300,000. And nothing is final yet, but the district is strongly considering picking up the entire tab rather than passing some of the cost increases onto employees.Furthermore, the district must balance teacher salaries and benefits with pulls for programmatic funding increases.”We have lists from people in District Accountability, and the board has some things they’d like to see happen. One of the things at the top of everyone’s list is all-day kindergarten. We’re putting all our emphasis on covering our costs, and we’ve put everything else into the salary pie,” Hamner said.

In the face of funding woes, those on both sides of the local negotiating table are considering settling on salary figures for one year, and then redressing the issue as the financial picture changes.As state legislators tackle a “constitutional crisis” spawned by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), which clamps down on funding increases to state programs, educators are hopeful that Colorado, someday, may have more cash for public education.”It’s hard to make a three-year commitment to money when the future is so uncertain,” Hamner said.”Surely, Colorado can’t be happy being 45th in school funding,” McDermott said. “When the money loosens up, we’re going to go for it.”Julie Sutor can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 203, or at jsutor@summitdaily.com.


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