TOPSHAM — Teachers in Maine School Administrative District 75 are asking for raises that they say would put their pay on par with teachers in neighboring school systems.

The Merrymeeting Teachers Association has been negotiating with the school district, trying to agree to terms on a three-year contract.

Teachers and parents showed up at the last MSAD 75 school board meeting dressed in red to show support for fair pay for teachers. Nicole Karod, the association’s president-elect and middle school science teacher, said she expects a stronger showing at the district’s final budget hearing at 6 p.m. this evening.

The school board is set to vote on its proposed 2019-20 budget, which voters will weigh at the polls in June.

Negotiations between the teachers and district failed to yield a contract agreement, so the two parties will start mediation May 3. If no agreement is reached, the next step could be arbitration. If no consensus can be reached, the teachers association could go into the fall without a contract, if the association votes to do so.

According to the district’s business manager, Mark Conrad, the finance committee’s proposed budget includes $500,000 in salary increases.

“Recognizing that the negotiations are still in process, the finance committee wanted to ensure there are increases contained in the budget for teacher salaries,” he said.

But Karod argues it’s not enough to close the pay gap between district teachers and their neighboring peers. Spread across district teachers, it would amount to a little less than a $2,000 raise, “which is what we’ve always settled for, and it’s not enough,” she said. “Especially when our surrounding districts and ones that we compete with, are getting an average of about $3,000 (increases).”

The association argues that a teacher with 15 years of experience and a master’s degree earns $61,454 in Brunswick, $62,898 in Bath and $64,316 at Freeport; but would only earn $54,300 in MSAD 75, which consists of the towns of Topsham, Harpswell, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham.

With 20 years of experience, the gap widens further. The Merrymeeting Teachers Association argues such a teacher would earn $69,635 in Brunswick, $76,688 in Bath, and $68,431 in Freeport. That same teacher in MSAD 75 would only make $58,800 — a difference of close to $20,000.

MSAD 75’s school board chairman, Tyler Washburn, countered that the district is a leader in the region on health benefits.

“When comparing school districts, it is important to remember that these benefits do have costs associated with them,” he said in an email to The Times Record.

Karod said the argument is often made in the salary debate that the district offers very good health insurance, which she doesn’t dispute. But it’s still not enough, she argues.

The association states there is still a gap of $10,605, even with insurance premiums considered.

“This is not acceptable,” a letter to the editor from the association states.

Eighth-grade science teacher Kirk Niese said teachers are wary of asking taxpayers to commit to tax increases.

“This is a difficult task because you’re asking taxpayers to put a value on the service that their teachers are performing and it’s hard,” Niese said. “It’s a hard pill to swallow as a teacher who’s trying to negotiate what they feel is best for the students. It’s also hard for taxpayers but I think it becomes a lot easier to have a conversation when the numbers are in front of us and we can talk about the numbers and try to keep the emotions out of it and try to look at compensation and equivalencies.”

Conrad declined to comment on why district administration chose to recommend $500,000 in teacher salary increases, given the ongoing contract negotiations. Nor could he confirm terms of teacher contracts in the three neighboring towns cited by the teachers association, or the cost to bring MSAD 75 salaries up to the same level of pay. He said the teacher association’s MSAD 75 teacher salary figures are accurate.

“The only point I’m going to make, because we always do salary comparisons — not only for teachers but for administrators and support staff, we generally look at a band that goes beyond three districts,” he said.

“It is also important to remember that we must be fiscally responsible with the tax dollars of our neighbors in our goal to provide the very best education for our students,” Washburn said.

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