Mehlville school board awaits teacher approval of new pact

Teachers protest leave policy they call ‘egregious,’ ‘punitive’

Samantha Stormer

Samantha Stormer

By Gloria LLoyd

The Mehlville Board of Education believes it concluded teacher negotiations last week without having to turn to a mediator to settle a salary dispute, pending teacher approval of the agreement.

The board extended negotiations beyond the June 1 deadline to settle on a pact with teachers, who wanted more money than the district was offering and changes to a policy that went into effect this year that discourages them from taking Fridays off near the end of the school year.

Mehlville National Education Association, or MNEA, negotiators walked away from the table declaring “no agreement” May 22, saying that they would seek a federal mediator. The next day, the board bypassed MNEA leaders and sent an email directly to teachers detailing what the district was offering and how negotiations got to the breaking point.

After an eight-hour bargaining session May 31, teachers asked for more time to reach an agreement, and the board extended the deadline through 5 p.m. June 6, with the stipulation that only salary would be discussed, rather than the four or five other issues that had often dominated months of negotiations.

“The remaining two issues that we have, which were pay and leave, we’ve come to a tentative agreement on that,” said Board of Education President Samantha Stormer.

But beyond those general terms, Stormer said she was barred from speaking until the agreement is public once the board approves it. She expects that approval will happen June 29, if teachers vote to approve the plan.

Raises are the biggest disagreement. Chief Financial Officer Marshall Crutcher alluded to higher teacher salary concessions offered in recent talks when he presented an updated preliminary budget to the board last week, two days after the final negotiations session.

Crutcher projected a $530,000 surplus on next year’s budget instead of the $675,000 he originally projected after taking out $145,000 “based on recent adjustments we made based on teacher negotiations.”

With a $675,000 budget surplus originally projected, the district offered the expected yearly raise, or step increase, from the start, an average raise of 2.4 percent.

The MNEA asked for the step plus another $450 to $600 added to the base salary, which increases the salary schedule across the board. A $650 raise would cost the district at least $505,000 more annually, including increased benefit costs, and a $450 raise would cost at least $378,000 annually.

That would likely lead to another salary freeze on top of the four that longtime Mehlville teachers have seen, and the district would “rather give steps than give bumps and freezes,” the board said in the districtwide email. District officials have leaned toward adding money to the areas where salaries lag farthest behind in comparison to other districts, a new approach to how raises are allocated.

“I think we were trying to use data to inform where we needed to put money,” Superintendent Chris Gaines said. “It is a hard concept for some people to wrap their head around. We’re trying to make data-informed decisions.”

Besides salary, one of the lingering questions of negotiations involved a leave policy Gaines instituted last year that bans teachers from taking off Fridays in the last two months of the school year unless they obtain a doctor’s note or permission from Central Office.

The board approved the policy in direct response to skyrocketing teacher absences on Fridays and Mondays near the end of the 2015-2016 school year. But teachers objected to both the policy and the fact that the issue wasn’t raised in last year’s negotiations. As a compromise, the board modified the policy to apply only to Fridays.

Teachers told the board last year that they worried that the policy would ruin all the good will between teachers and the district in the wake of a revised pay plan that was popular with teachers.

“Bringing this up during a summer board meeting seems very underhanded and sneaky,” Point Elementary teacher Janice Baker told the board. “This seems to go against all of the positive strides that we have made with the district, the board, the community and the teachers. The morale in the district will go down and we don’t want that. We have seen such great things like Prop R, A and the new salary schedule.”

The leave policy is “egregious” and “punitive,” the MNEA said in a rebuttal of the district’s email it sent to its members May 26. In a survey, MNEA members saw it as a huge issue they wanted union leaders to focus on in negotiations.

The policy is part of the reason the MNEA asked in negotiations this year to have more control over which teachers are appointed to district committees, “rather than members who are there to rubber-stamp the district’s proposals.”

Before the district set the policy, teacher absences were “astronomical” on Fridays and Mondays, with 10 percent of teachers absent, Gaines said. Post-policy, absences have dropped significantly, and 95 percent of teachers who have asked Executive Director of Human Resources Mark Catalana for an exception have received it.

MNEA negotiators asked the district to abolish the policy if attendance improved this year, but the district offered to start a Leave Policy Committee that would research how other districts handle the issue and come up with a recommendation to the board. The board also proposed changing the current seven generic leave days to six sick days and two personal days, which would add a day of leave.

But that would be a return to how Mehlville handled leave in the 1990s, a policy the MNEA worked hard to overturn, negotiators said in their email to members. Teachers believed that the medical documentation required to verify sick days was an invasion of their privacy.

A crowd of teachers has attended the last three board meetings wearing red, or “Red for Ed.”

At the May 18 meeting, Oakville High School teacher Chris Tice noted that he ran into problems with the new Friday leave policy when he got sick on a recent Friday.

Since his doctor’s office is not open on Friday, he could not get a doctor’s note.

Instead, he came to work and saw the school nurse, who diagnosed him with a low-grade fever and sent him home.

“I feared being docked,” Tice said. “I risked other people getting sick even though I was feeling pretty bad … I think this puts an undue burden on teachers. I think it encourages teachers to come in when they’re ill and puts other teachers and students at risk, and I just don’t agree with the policy.”

His comments received a long round of applause from teachers in the crowd.

The new revision the district proposed during negotiations fixes everything that Tice questioned about the policy, Gaines said.