For the first time in 18 years the Woodbridge School District and its teachers could not agree on teacher contracts for the three years starting in July 2020. After a summer-long negotiation marathon, the two parties met with three arbitrators on September 12 and 13. The outcome is a 9.25% salary increase spread over three years.
Contrary to what the district had hoped for, namely a salary freeze, or very low increase in the first year, the arbitrators looked at what is being done in other towns with similar economic profiles, and settled on a 3.43% increase for the 2020-21 school year; 2.5% for 2021-22 and 3.28% for 2022-23. The arbitration settlement also included provisions that are advantageous for the district, namely in the health plan. In particular, the employee cost sharing in health premiums increases by 4.5% over three years.
In addition to the health premium cost sharing increase, the settlement also includes some health plan design changes, with higher deductibles, for a savings of 3.5%. Newly hired teachers will no longer be eligible for medical coverage after retirement, a provision that could have a significant long-term impact on the town’s teacher pension obligations.
For its 77 full-time certified teachers, the salary increase could add up to a total $260,000 increase in next year’s budget, said School Supt. Robert Gilbert. He said the dollar number is “a moving target,” depending on who fills each position and the professional experience they bring to the table.
Teacher compensation increases are determined by the general wage increases as well as “step” increases – every year for the first 13 years, a newly minted teacher will take a step up in the compensation grid. In Woodbridge, about half of the staff are already at the top step, Gilbert said.
That is why early retirement incentives are fiscally successful in Woodbridge. Through voluntary retirements, the district may replace a teacher in the $90,000 range with a teacher with fewer years of experience and paid on a lower step, possibly the $60,000 range. The retirement incentive has netted significant savings over the past ten years, Gilbert said.
Attorney Floyd J. Dugas represented the district during the contract negotiations and the arbitration process. “We took a very hard line with the teachers,” he told the Board of Selectmen at its October meeting, adding, “they, too, took a hard line — expectations were high – and we weren’t able to settle.” Dugas said the Board of Education took its position as requested by town leaders who had communicated a tough stance as far as the school budget is concerned.
“Board of Finance member Tom Handler was sitting in with us and providing us input,” Dugas said. “He explained the fiscal concerns of the town.” Dugas said the expectation from town leaders is for the Board of Education to come up with a no-increase budget, and that had informed their negotiations throughout this process.
The teachers’ representatives, WEA president Caterina Zdrowski and vice president Nancy Smerekanicz, said teachers were relieved that the wage freeze was off the table. “Teacher salaries are not keeping up with the cost of living,” Zdrowski said. “While we all want the best for students at our school, we know that if we don’t ensure that teachers are compensated for what they do, then we risk losing excellent teachers and diminishing the high-quality education our community has and deserves.”
The last few years the district and the union have used “interest-based bargaining” techniques, whereby both parties are looking for areas of common interest. “It’s supposed to be a kinder, gentler way to settle contracts,” Dugas said.
But that did not pan out this time around. “When we could not agree on salary, all the other issues were off the table,” Zdrowski said. “It ended up being more of traditional bargaining.”
Salary samples: This school year, a new hire with a BA will start at Step 3, for an annual salary of $50,322; with a Master’s degree, they will make $52,616. Starting in July 2020, a new hire will make $50,951 or $53,274 with a Masters.
Those at the top of the scale in 2020-21 will make $82,784 (BA) or $93,080 (MA). Those at the top of the scale in 2022-23 will make $83, 819 (BA) or $94,244 (MA).
Though teachers with a Masters who have reached the top step do not receive step increases, they do receive incremental stipends, depending on the number of years teaching.
Dugas told selectmen that they had the option to reject the settlement, which would take the issue to a second panel of arbitrators. However, “given where settlements are this year, I am not optimistic we would have a different result with a second panel,” he said. Selectmen followed that advice and voted to accept the settlement.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent