The Coeur d’Alene School District and teachers are closing in on a new contract two weeks before school resumes.
The two sides met Monday and have agreed on most points, including changes to employee health benefits and a pay raise of one-half of 1 percent.
“We think we have tentative agreement there,” said Wendell Wardell, the district’s chief operating officer.
At the end of the meeting, district officials pushed back against a new proposal by the Coeur d’Alene Education Association to hire a part-time teacher to fill in for its president when he is tied up with union business. Currently, the district helps pay for a substitute teacher to cover for the CEA president.
The negotiating teams will reconvene Wednesday night for what is expected to be the final meeting on this year’s contract.
Most of the recent haggling has been over how to spend any money above the district’s projected carryover balance of $4.85 million. The district will know this amount after its annual audit is completed this fall.
If more money is available, the first priority would be restoring some of the cuts to family health coverage. The district pays 71 percent of family coverage now and plans to drop that to 68 percent. But if an additional $84,000 is available, the district would bump family coverage back up to 69 percent.
The next $222,493, if available, would go into the district’s contingency reserve fund.
After that, the union proposes distributing the next $284,493 to all 816 employees who have benefits – a one-time payment averaging about $349 per person – to offset their cuts in health benefits. Earlier proposals earmarked some of that money to help teachers buy classroom supplies, but the union countered with letting teachers spend the money however they like.
The district has not agreed to this expense, but both sides appear close to language they agree on.
The next $146,000 would go to replacing old buses, which the district has been postponing, and any remaining money would also be split evenly among employees.
The district and teachers this summer hashed out changes in health benefits to help bridge a projected shortfall of $1.5 million. Key changes include:
• Doubling employees’ co-insurance cost, to 20 percent.
• Doubling employee deductible rates to $400 per person or $800 per family.
• Allowing employees to opt out of district insurance if they are covered by another plan.
Tim Sandford, lead negotiator for the union, said teachers have seen their pay remain flat and their benefits cut in recent years as state funding of public education has been slashed.
“The difficulty for both the board and us is trying to find a way to keep teachers in the classroom and not leaving for other states, but still keep the district financially solvent,” Sandford said. “But for five years we haven’t taken an increase on the base (pay) and we’ve decreased benefits, which is in fact a cut in pay because now you’re paying out of pocket for health care.”
On what could be the final sticking point to an agreement, the union made its case for hiring a certified teacher to take on some of the classroom load for its president.
The union’s local does not have the funds to pay for the position, but the district could cover the cost with savings from employees who waive district insurance coverage, Sandford said.
School Board Chairman Tom Hearn, who is on the district’s bargaining team, said the school trustees are not likely to go for that.
“Political reality is it’s not going to fly with the board,” Hearn said.
The other school board member participating in negotiations, Christa Hazel, said she expects it would increase the public’s ire at a time when the district’s business is under close scrutiny.