Mehlville NEA seeks mediator after negotiations break down

MNEA seeks $450 to $600 added to Mehlville base pay

Samantha Stormer

Samantha Stormer

By Gloria Lloyd

Negotiations between the Mehlville Board of Education and district teachers have completely broken down in advance of this week’s deadline, and union negotiators are seeking intervention from a mediator.

Board President Samantha Stormer said the school board took the unprecedented step of emailing its offers and counteroffers directly to teachers last week because board members believed the negotiating team from the Mehlville National Education Association, or MNEA, was not painting an accurate picture of negotiations.

“It’s been very disheartening to go through, and talking to some of our teachers, they truly didn’t know what all was going on,” Stormer said. “We’re going to let everybody know what’s going on because we’ve seen the emails that they were corresponding with to their members, and it wasn’t telling the whole story. For the sake of the teachers, they need to be hearing all sides, not just one side. Because it builds that animosity when you only hear one side of a story.”

District policy sets a June 1 negotiations deadline, and the MNEA will return to the table for bargaining May 31, said union President Laurie Brickey, who teaches at Trautwein Elementary.

The board sent the email after the MNEA declared “no agreement” status after the 11th negotiating session May 23.

“Non-agreement and a request for mediation puts us in unchartered waters,” the board said.

The dismal state of negotiations portrayed by the district could not have contrasted more with last year, when the MNEA happily accepted with the highest approval in years a new pay schedule that shifted salaries around to be more competitive. The negotiator who scored that deal, Mehlville High School teacher Ernie Perrica, is not involved this year.

In the unprecedented email this year, board members outlined what they have offered during closed-door discussions this spring, what teachers have accepted and rejected, and the board’s take on how the process went off the rails.

The MNEA sent a rebuttal to teachers, librarians and counselors May 26 and denies that they are giving teachers inaccurate information. The Call did not obtain a copy of the rebuttal by press time.

“Mehlville NEA stand by the information we’ve presented to our stakeholders with regard to negotiations as truthful and accurate,” Brickey wrote in an email. “We remain hopeful that a mutually satisfactory resolution can be reached.”

The frosty reception the district is getting from the MNEA this year is particularly upsetting to Stormer because she believes she spent the past three years rebuilding the relationship between the district and its teachers after it reached the breaking point the year she joined the board.

“When I started, I heard nothing but yelling coming out of the negotiating room, and that is not how you negotiate,” she said. “That relationship had been badly damaged over the years.”

But now the district is getting all “hard no’s” and no concessions, she said.

After the rough negotiations of 2014, interim Superintendent Norm Ridder and former board President Ron Fedorchak took board members out of the negotiating room with a policy that the district will be represented by an attorney. Although Mehlville attorney Charles Elbert has been more involved in negotiations since then, under Superintendent Chris Gaines negotiations have primarily been handled by administrators.

The MNEA wants board members back in the room, Stormer said.

A negotiator from the Missouri NEA bargains alongside the MNEA for teachers.

Fresh off their success in a union-backed elections sweep of the Lindbergh Board of Education, state NEA officials have been more involved in Mehlville’s negotiations this year than usual.

The state organization approached Mehl-ville in January to ask that the district switch its method of negotiating from a more traditional format to the NEA’s preferred method of interest-based bargaining, or IBB. But with special training required for board members and negotiators and with just weeks until negotiations were scheduled to start Feb. 1, that was off the table this year, Stormer said.

The MNEA did not start negotiating until March 31, and then spent much of its time talking about the wording of meeting minutes, the board email said.

Negotiations have tripped up on all five points discussed: salary, the bargaining model, initiatives, committees and leave policy. Raises are the biggest disagreement.

With a $675,000 budget surplus projected for the 2017-2018 school year, the district offered a step increase from the start, an average raise of 2.4 percent. The MNEA asked for that plus $450 to $600 added to the base salary, which increases the salary schedule across the board.

That would likely lead to another salary freeze on top of the four that longtime teachers have seen at Mehlville, and the board would “rather give steps than give bumps and freezes,” the email said.

Few salaries in Mehlville are competitive, but the district has struggled to hire the best people for support staff at salaries offered, the board said. Given extra money, the district would rather boost those salaries. As a concession, the board offered to restore a lost step to teachers frozen four times.

The MNEA wants to appoint all teachers on committees and also believes panels like the Calendar Committee should have more teachers and fewer parents. The district wants to decide what teachers serve and also increase parent representation, the board said.

Teachers also object to a leave policy that keeps them from taking off Fridays in April and May, put in place after “astronomical” absences last year, Gaines said.

Traditionally, Mehlville has used positional bargaining, where the district offers a proposal and teachers counter each time they meet.

To explain IBB, Stormer allowed state NEA leaders Kari Estes and Jo Wanda Bozeman to present to the board for roughly an hour before a Jan. 5 work session on the new school of innovation. The process is used by the Parkway School District, which pays a teacher to work full time for the Parkway NEA. Bozeman worked in that role before moving to the state NEA.

As Bozeman explained it, IBB is a roundtable discussion where all ideas are on the table and raises are not mentioned up front.

Instead, IBB allows teachers to bring up their “interests,” or concerns about the district, with nothing dismissed out of hand.

“Your focus is on interests and your issues, not on people or positions,” she told the board. “It’s problem solving for both parties, and you’re hard on the issues and soft on the people. Either party can say no, but you have to explain your objections … It’s aggressive, but it’s cooperative.”