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Pioneer district teachers  get long-awaited contract

NORTHFIELD — After more than 18 months of negotiations, the teachers in the Pioneer Valley Regional School District have a contract.

“This negotiation was long and difficult for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the lack of money on our part, the state’s part, and the towns’ ability to fund (schools),” said Jed Proujansky, spokesman on contract negotiations for the School Committee.

The teachers’ desire for more compensation, and the School Committee’s desire to submit a low budget to the district’s member towns dragged those negotiations out to 22 sessions, taking more than a year and a half. Tuesday, the School Committee unanimously approved the agreement, which covers the current school year, and expires in 2015.

The 108 teachers’ union members approved the contract 68-34, with six not voting.

“I think that’s a reasonably good endorsement,” said Superintendent Dayle Doiron. “I feel good; it was a difficult negotiation. It was difficult to change the salary schedule.”

The last contract, which covered school years starting in 2009 and ending in 2012, came at the expense of teachers’ cost-of-living increases.

“Three years ago, we had a very helpful negotiation on the part of the teachers,” said Proujansky.

In 2009, teachers waived their cost-of-living adjustments for the first two years of the agreement, and received a 1.5 percent increase for the final year. Teachers did, however, receive raises each year as they advanced through the school’s pay schedule.

The new agreement will give teachers a 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment for half of this school year, beginning Dec. 1, 2012. After that, said Proujansky, those increases will be included in the pay schedule.

“It averages to about a 3.3 percent increase in the first year,” he said.

Subsequent years have the cost-of-living adjustment built into the pay schedule, and, by the end of the contract, will result in a 4.25 percent average increase in pay, said Doiron.

“It’s more than we’d hoped for, but not more than we can manage with the budget we can best predict,” said Proujansky.

Employees are placed in the pay scale depending on their level of experience and education, and advance one step every year.

“I think this salary schedule paves the way for smoother negotiations in the future,” said Doiron. “Last time, there were real winners and losers (salary-wise). I think this schedule allows for more equity.”

Previous contracts, said Doiron, gave greater pay increases to those near the bottom of the pay scale. The superintendent said this was an incentive to new teachers joining the district. However, she said, the smaller raises at the top of the pay scale provided little incentive for experienced teachers to stay.

The last three-year contract expired at the end of the last school year, with negotiations nowhere near complete. It covered classroom and special needs teachers, as well as psychologists and speech therapists, all of whom worked without a contract until the new agreement was ratified Tuesday night.

The proposed district budget for the upcoming school year is $14.3 million, an increase of $781,905, or 5.79 percent, from this year’s.

Most of that increase is due to raises, new hires, and benefits to current and retired employees. They come in at $674,328 more than this year’s figures.

The proposed budget lists $5.7 million — more than a third of the entire budget — in salaries for the employees covered by the teachers’ contract. This is an increase of $300,681, or 5.5 percent.

Salaries for the entire district come in at $11.63 million, up 6 percent from $10.96 million.

Health and life insurance are another big part of the budget, weighing in at $2.2 million. A $236,217 rise in those costs is because 14 employees previously not covered are expected to take the district’s insurance next year, and the cost to cover retired employees has gone up $58,000.

With costs rising and the economy struggling, it’s getting tougher for towns to fund their schools and other operating costs.

“The percentage of the towns’ budgets going to the schools keeps getting greater over time,” said Proujansky. “It can’t go on forever.”

Proujansky’s home town of Northfield approved a fiscal year 2013 operating budget of $6.6 million, of which $3.6 million went to the school district, and another $252,083 went to the Franklin County Technical School.

As school budgets increased in the last few years, outside funding has gone down. Doiron said state aid to schools dropped about five years ago, and has remained about level the last two years.

“We’ve had a pretty significant reduction in grant money the last couple of years,” said Doiron.

This school year, the district received $774,636 in grants, down from $974,306. The decrease in state and grant money shifts the burden back onto the towns.

In March, the School Committee will meet with representatives from the district’s four towns; Bernardston, Leyden, Northfield and Warwick, to determine the towns’ capacity to fund their portions of the budget.

The budget approved last year was $13.5 million, of which 54.3 percent came from the four member towns. The district received $4 million in state aid, $1.7 million in tuition and school choice payments for out-of-district students, and the balance came from transportation reimbursements, Medicaid, and bank account interest.

David Rainville can be reached at:
drainville@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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