Teachers frustrated with contract bargaining process

2013-11-30T22:00:00Z 2013-12-01T09:04:07Z Teachers frustrated with contract bargaining processBy Carmen McCollum carmen.mccollum@nwi.com, (219) 662-5337 nwitimes.com

It's been two years since Senate Bill 575 passed in 2011, a piece of legislation that sparked protests from teachers across Indiana.

The law limited the ability of teachers to bargain anything other than wages and benefits. Teachers no long negotiate over things such as the length of the contract and working conditions.

With the changes in the law, Munster Teachers Association President Ryan Ridgley believes it has become more difficult to negotiate contracts.

"Whether you have a good or bad relationship between administration and the teacher's union, limiting negotiations to salary and benefits takes away local control from the process," he said. "We have already seen where school corporations have added hours to a teacher's contract without having to negotiate compensation for those hours. That is just wrong."

Ridgley said he believes working conditions and other items stripped from the negotiation process need to be negotiable. He said every school district has different needs in terms of their contract.

"While the politicians may have deemed some of these things 'fluff,' they are not the ones working in those school districts," Ridgley said. "For all the talk some politicians like to speak about limiting government involvement, they sure like to micromanage anything they can get their hands on."

Ridgley said taking away the ability to negotiate anything other than salary and wage-related benefits does not make the negotiation process easier. He said it takes away a teacher's voice.

"The administration and teachers should be working together to benefit the school, not against each other. The changes to the law, I feel, create an atmosphere that could turn the two sides against each other instead of working with each other," Ridgley said.

The Lake Ridge Schools used a mediator to assist with negotiations after teachers held protests at the four schools and the administration center.

Lake Ridge Teachers Federation President Dan Brugioni said they settled the contract a few weeks ago.

"We held on to a severance package and insurance package for retirees, which the administration wanted to take away, and kept them from bringing wages down," he said. "However, we were not able to keep the 3 percent Teacher's Retirement Fund benefit we had been fighting for months to keep, but were able to negotiate a 1 percent raise as a way to offset some of it."

Brugioni said former Gov. Mitch Daniels and former Indiana education leader Tony Bennett's education reform was neither fair nor right.

"It is all about squeezing educational funding dry and trying to kill public education in order to move to cheaper charter (or) private schools, but we know the fight is far from over, and our union has never been more unified," he said.

Betty Quinn, staff representative for the American Federation of Teachers Indiana, and Joe Zimmerman, president of the Gary Teachers Union, say the time constraints within the new teacher negotiation law are frustrating.

Quinn said the new law calls for contracts to be settled by the end of the calendar year, Dec. 31. But formal negotiations can't begin until Aug. 1. She said informal bargaining can occur but no contract can be settled, leaving a "very short window" for contract talks.

If the sides don't reach a final settlement by about Oct. 1, Quinn said, negotiations are considered to be at impasse and the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board automatically sends in a mediator. The two sides are allowed only three mediation sessions.

Quinn said that costs money for both sides. If the two don't settle then, it goes to a fact finder. Both sides present their latest offer to the fact finder at a hearing. The fact finder chooses either the union's proposal or the school corporation's offer. That's binding and becomes the new contract, Quinn said.

"I believe the law needs to be modified to allow for more flexibility," she said. "Allow the formal contract negotiations to begin sooner. It would help to have a little extra time to get things settled. Mediation can be helpful, but it would be better to have more than three sessions. I don't like that it's an either-or situation when it gets to the fact finder and there's no room for compromise. It's also frustrating not to be able to negotiate hours and days."

Zimmerman called the deadlines under the teacher contract negotiation law unrealistic, and said the process "takes longer than what the Legislature expected."

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