by Alex Feit
Newton Teachers Association negotiators are close to striking a deal with the School Committee for a new teachers’ contract that will include changes in teachers’ health care, benefits and base salary, according to NTA president Mike Zilles.
“I am cautiously optimistic that the NTA Negotiations Team will soon be reaching agreement with the School Committee on a fair contract that will extend through the coming three academic years,” Zilles said in a speech at the August 31 all-City faculty meeting.
If a new contract were to be ratified, it would mark the end of a year-long negotiation process. Teachers and other Newton Public Schools employees are entering their second year without a contract, Zilles said.
Jonathan Yeo, the School Committee’s chair of negotiations, said that he is “very hopeful that a fair settlement will be reached in the next few weeks.”
In reality, two contracts are being negotiated, said history and social sciences teacher Joel Greifinger, the chief negotiating chair for the NTA. One contract will cover the 2010-2011 school year, during which a contract was not in place, and a successor contract will cover the 2011-2014 school years, he said.
A central topic of the collective bargaining agreements has been how to divide out-of-pocket expenses for NPS employees’ health-care plan, Zilles said.
Under a law passed in the State House earlier this year, local municipalities are required to provide health insurance either through the Group Insurance Commission (GIC), a state-run health-care plan for Massachusetts public employees, or through municipal plans that offer “benefits of comparable actuarial value to those provided by the group insurance commission,” the law says.
However, it has been the position of the NTA that adopting the GIC or a comparable plan would “seriously erode the health care protection of its members,” according to Greifinger.
“The GIC or GIC-like plan also wouldn’t save a significant amount of money as compared to a set of plan design changes that we and the other City unions proposed to the City,” Greifinger said.
Zilles also said that “out-of-pocket expenses for medical care for many teachers would go up dramatically,” if a plan with certain provisions from the new law was adopted.
Up to this point, the NTA and the School Committee have negotiated tentative health care terms which include raising co-pays and deductables, which are out-of-pocket expenses, but not to the same degree as would be expected in a GIC-like plan, Zilles said.
In addition, raises in the NPS employee salary scale are being negotiated to help account for the hike in health-care costs and cost-of-living expenses, Zilles said.
“We want to make sure people are paid as well as those in towns such as Needham and Wellesley.”
Another tentative feature of a new contract would be to postpone all step increases for NPS employees between Saturday, Oct. 15 and Thursday, March 15, according to Zilles. Step increases allow new teachers at a starter salary to incrementally earn a full salary over time.
In anticipation of a possible agreement, Zilles said that the NTA has already signed a memorandum of agreement with the School Committee to allow it to postpone the step increases for the first three pay periods of the year for teachers, which will last until October 15.
To offset the fact that many teachers would not step up a level in payment March 15 in the new contract, NTA members would receive a “significant lump-sum payment” that would get added to their base salary next year, Zilles said.
In the event that a contract is not signed before October 15, teachers would receive their expected step increases under the old contract and be paid retroactively for the step increases they would not have received, Zilles said.
According to Greifinger, the memorandum was signed to make the payroll for school employees more efficient to process.
If the NTA had not signed the memorandum, Greifinger said that the teachers would have received regular step increases and then after a contract was signed, they would have reverted back to their original level for six months, which would be “a bureaucratic nightmare” for the payroll system.
Yeo also said that delaying step increases would “save the City a large amount of money.”
Greifinger said that there are still elements of the contract that need to be worked out in the negotiations.
“There are details to which I hope and believe we can come to agreements in a timely fashion, but are significant enough that I can’t say at this point that I feel like it’s just ‘crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s,’” he said.
“One of the things we need to remember is that we’re bargaining for five different units.” Greifinger said. “Each of the individual units has a different salary scale, which makes it hard to negotiate an agreement.”
According to Zilles, what the NTA has been looking for in a contract is “just fairness.” This has become the main slogan of the negotiations, Zilles said.
Ten other City unions have already made contract agreements with the City within the past couple of months which have resolved similar issues, such as how to compile a health- care plan, Zilles noted.
“We see a number of contracts made with other workers in the city, and we think if they are able to negotiate meaningful contracts with others, we should as well,” Zilles said.
According to Greifinger, “What ‘just fairness’ means is that there is a kind of shared sacrifice, which is something that we from the beginning of the negotiations made clear that we are willing to accept.”