Negotiations between the Wichita school district and its teachers union have broken down again, after an initial mediation session ended without agreement on a contract for the current school year.
Union officials took to social media to decry what they say is the Board of Education’s lack of commitment to classroom teachers.
“We contend and fully believe that if the BOE wants to find money, they can,” said Steve Wentz, president of United Teachers of Wichita, in a video posted on the union’s Facebook page. “This has been proven over and over again.”
District officials, meanwhile, said they plan to “continue to work through the fact-finding process … but will not do so through social media.”
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“This kind of approach is not productive in our effort to find a solution, and only promotes misinformation and incomplete representation of facts,” said district spokeswoman Wendy Johnson.
“We look forward to arriving at a solution that recognizes the Board of Education’s commitment to recruitment and retention of staff through compensation, and to doing so within the confines of our budget.”
Representatives for the district and the teachers union met with a federal mediator on Oct. 17 after reaching an impasse in negotiations over a new contract.
Union officials said the teams almost came to agreement on a 4 percent raise for teachers. A point of contention, however, was the district calendar.
Last year, following a vote of approval by Wichita teachers, the district added 30 minutes to each school day and shortened the school year by 15 days. The move was designed to cut about $3 million in transportation and other costs.
District officials want to return to the previous calendar next year, with shorter days and a longer year. Union officials said they’d accept those terms if the district agreed to a “catch-up” step on the salary schedule for years of experience.
District officials estimated the cost of one step at $2 million, Wentz said.
He pointed to a school board vote in June to pay superintendent Alicia Thompson an additional $8,506 for taking over as superintendent a month early.
“The BOE can find money for the superintendent to work more days,” he said. “If they can do that, they can find money for employees to work 15 more days.”
District officials say their desire to return to the shorter-day calendar is based on “overwhelming dislike of the late dismissal time by both elementary staff and parents, and the negative impact on elementary teacher recruitment and retention.”
Johnson, the district spokeswoman, said returning to the 190-day calendar for teachers – 173 days for students – would retain an added recess period, additional plan time and extended winter break. Each school day would be 30 minutes shorter.
In previous negotiation sessions, UTW sought a 5 percent raise along with steps, tracks and longevity pay. Wentz also pressed district officials to pledge that at least 67 percent of any additional state funding be directed toward teacher compensation, saying the contract covers that portion of district employees.
Impasse and mediation has been a common occurrence during teacher contract negotiations the past several years. Last year, the Wichita school board approved a contract in late October.
The next step in contract talks after mediation fails is fact-finding. In that process, a third-party fact finder assigned by the Kansas Department of Labor holds a hearing during which each side presents its case. The fact finder considers evidence, compiles a report and makes a non-binding recommendation to the school board.
The school district has authority to issue a unilateral contract, in which teachers could get “everything or nothing,” Wentz said.
“I would imagine a mass exodus if the district did this. This is not what’s best for students,” he said. He encouraged teachers to call school board members to voice their concerns.
“If you don’t demand that you be treated decently, you will not be treated decently,” Wentz said. “I’m concerned about USD 259 moving forward and helping students achieve at the highest level, and it starts with educators in the classroom.”