Two years after Freeport, Durham and Pownal agreed to form Regional School Unit 5, salaries remain a sticking point in negotiating a combined contract for teachers.

Negotiations Tuesday with a mediator produced some progress in cleaning up basic contract language, but significant differences persist in salaries and benefits, according to school administrators and teachers’ union leaders.

Superintendent Shannon Welsh said the two sides haven’t even started to talk about salaries because the process of combining three teachers’ contracts has been so complicated.

While other Maine school districts wrestle with similar concerns, teachers in RSU 5 have gone public with their frustration, holding an informational picket line outside a recent school board budget meeting.

“The contracts have not been melded, and in some ways talks have slowed down,” said Hank Ogilby, a Freeport High School social studies teacher and a negotiator for the teachers’ union.

Union leaders hope to have a new contract before school starts in the fall, as required by law, Ogilby said, but with the next negotiating session set for Aug. 9, he’s not sure that’s possible.

Welsh said the district’s $23.9 million budget for 2011-12 includes $500,000 to cover anticipated salary and benefit increases for all employees.

“Our goal is absolutely to finish this up as soon as possible,” said Welsh, whose district has about 180 teachers, including 50 in Durham and 10 in Pownal.

Without a contract among them for nearly a year, Pownal and Durham teachers continue to be paid less, overall, than Freeport teachers, Ogilby said. Some Freeport teachers get $4,000 to $5,000 more per year than Pownal and Durham teachers who do the same jobs with similar experience. Itinerant teachers who work in more than one town in the district are paid different rates for the same work.

Conflict cropped up early in negotiations, Ogilby said. Teachers approached the bargaining table hoping that the better parts of each contract, especially Freeport’s higher salaries, would be carried over to a combined contract.

District officials indicated from the outset that they had “very different expectations,” Ogilby said. “They wanted to start from scratch. They viewed this as a fresh start.”

Indeed, Welsh said, school officials didn’t intend to adopt any of the three contracts unchanged. The new contract will be more meaningful, easier to understand and without language that’s redundant with state and federal laws, she said. It will help the district attract and keep great teachers, she said, and develop strong educational programs for students.

“This is an opportunity for us to look at education in the 21st century,” Welsh said.

As Maine continues to consolidate school districts, the task of combining teaching staffs with different contracts, pay scales and benefits packages is a challenge that some communities handle better than others.

“We’ve seen some incredible success stories, where both sides have been motivated to bring contracts into alignment,” said Rob Walker, deputy executive director of the Maine Education Association, representing teachers.

RSU 10 in Dixfield, the combination of three school administrative districts, is in that group, Walker said. He credited the superintendent and teachers’ union with sharing a strong motivation to achieve fairness and equity.

Other districts continue to struggle. Contract talks in RSU 20, covering eight towns around Belfast, and RSU 13, five towns around Rockland, are mired in fact-finding, Walker said.

It most cases, educational leadership plays a huge role in maintaining staff morale and preserving the district’s goals through the negotiating process, Walker said. But in many districts, state and federal funding cuts have created major stumbling blocks.

Teachers in RSU 5 understand that money is tight, Ogilby said. The union isn’t seeking a cost-of-living increase in the first year of the new contract, but it does want the district to honor step increases for longevity. It also wants salaries to be increased, where needed, to ensure equity.

The district offered teachers a 1.7 percent cost-of-living increase in December, but they declined.

“We felt we needed to bring the other teachers along with us,” Ogilby said. “I respect that these are not great economic times, but we’ve been luckier than most districts. We’ve had no layoffs, and they should be commended for that. But this is an issue that we all expected, and I think it’s vital that we get it resolved this summer.” 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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