Hamilton teachers protected until '14

Hamilton teachers protected until '14

June 19th, 2011 by Joan Garrett McClane in News

Rick Smith, superintendent for Hamilton County Schools, discusses education in his office.

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

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Teachers in Hamilton County will see their benefits and pay protected for at least three more years despite a new state law that supersedes collective bargaining requirements that had been in place for 33 years.

Of 91 school districts with collective bargaining contracts, more than 30 will be stripped of their negotiation powers July 1. Others will follow as their county contracts expire. Forty-five districts don't have union agreements.

The change means teachers could lose professional leave time, benefits and notification of transfers to new jobs. Teachers also fear they will lose the right to be heard on such issues as extending the school year.

"There won't be any more teacher input," said Rhonda Catanzaro, liaison between the Tennessee Education Association and its affiliate, the Hamilton County Education Association. "It's a very trying time for teachers in Tennessee right now."

But the situation in Hamilton County is different, at least for now: The HCEA ratified a three-year contract with the county just before the legal requirements for collective bargaining were changed.

HCEA representatives say the recently approved pact will give Hamilton County teachers full protections for longer than most.

"We are very fortunate," said Catanzaro. "The collaborative effort in Hamilton County continued regardless of what was happening in Nashville."

Many say curbing union power in local schools is an essential step in implementing education reforms and making teachers more accountable for learning outcomes.

Unions have had too much sway over teachers and boards of education, said Hamilton County school board member Rhonda Thurman.

Contracts have limited schools from things as simple as being able to put information in teachers' mailboxes or pin notices on teacher bulletin boards, she said.

"I wish we had held out," Thurman said. "I am tired of being held hostage."

Since the collective bargaining law was approved in 1978, proponents have argued that the measure improved state education by empowering teachers. The law required school boards to bargain in districts where most teachers had organized.

Thanks to its provisions, over the years teachers have negotiated everything from planning time, textbooks and professional leave to school safety issues and air conditioning in the classroom, along with higher pay and benefits, officials said.

But lawmakers gutted the law last session in an effort spearheaded by Republican leadership. Instead, school boards now are required to meet with teacher representatives on limited topics such as some wage and benefit issues. But local school boards are under no obligation to enter such agreements.

"It's the difference in feeling respect and value. Collective bargaining is respect," Catanzaro said. "Members of the Legislature have decided that teachers don't need a say in that. They say a school board knows what is best in education."

Local union officials say they hope the state's new law will be changed - either overturned in the court system or politically - before the latest contract between teachers and the Hamilton County school system expires in October 2014.

Arrangements over pay and working conditions remain consistent in the school board's latest contract with HCEA. Teachers will receive a state-mandated 1.6 percent salary increase effective July 1. It will be the first teacher raise since 2007.

According to the Hamilton County Department of Education website, teacher salaries range from a base of $33,659 for a new teacher with a bachelor's degree to $59,062 for a teacher with 25 years' experience and a doctorate.

The 1.6 percent raise will mean an additional $538 to $945 more per year.

However, that will be offset by an increase in health insurance premiums, which will rise from about $25 a month to $100 for an individual.

The school system has more than 6,000 employees, and about 4,000 of them participate in the health insurance program, officials said.

School board members complained that HCEA's choice of plan was too expensive with the system facing a $14.4 million deficit, but the union didn't want to move to a new insurer, officials said.

Interim School Superintendent Rick Smith said the school board agreed to delay the implementation of the new premium costs for two months into the school year to help teachers with the transition.

And school board members say, contract or no contract, there is no plan to lower teachers' wages.

"It looks like the other counties around the state [where teachers don't have contracts], the teachers fare just as well," Thurman said. "There are no need to cut pay or benefits."