BY CAROL ROEHM
HOOPESTON — Two Vermilion County school districts — Hoopeston area and Rossville-Alvin — negotiated new contracts earlier this year.
Representatives from each district talk about how they were able to resolve differences between their school boards and teacher unions.
The Hoopeston Education Association and the Hoopeston Area School District agreed on a one-year contract for the 2012-13 school year on Aug. 16, the week before school started.
The new contract, which expires June 30, 2013, adds $450 to the teachers’ base salary, bringing the new base salary to $29,425. The agreement includes $577 per month to offset the cost of health insurance coverage for staff, which is paid to the school district’s health insurance carrier on behalf of staff members.
Also included in the contract are raises in salary at each eight-credit interval above a bachelor’s degree, and a 6 percent salary increase available to teachers in the last three years before retirement, as awarded in previous contracts.
Several language items were modified in the contract, including an item that concerns the new teacher evaluation system that is now required by state law.
Just like other area school districts, Superintendent Hank Hornbeck said Hoopeston Area also is feeling the financial pinch.
“When the recession hit, homes felt the crunch first but now, a couple years later, the school district is starting to feel the crunch,” he said.
According to Hornbeck, the district’s enrollment is down 58 students this year, mostly at the high school.
Hornbeck said the school district looked into what was causing the decline in enrollment and discovered that many local families had to relocate because that’s where they could find a job.
“We lost families when (ConAgra) closed in Rossville and another factory in Rantoul closed,” he said. “When you lose kids, you lose state aid.”
Hornbeck credited “good, open communication between the HEA and the school district” for the amicable negotiations.
“We meet regularly with the HEA throughout the school year,” he said. “There’s a lot of mutual respect between the union and the school district.”
Hornbeck did concede, however, that some parts of the contract negotiations were “difficult,” but the school district and the HEA were able to work through them.
“Salary and benefits are some things we had to work through, but the new teachers’ evaluation was the biggest issue,” he said. “We had to work through some of the language on that.”
Although Hornbeck said the implementation of a new teachers’ evaluation system is still a couple of years away, the new way of assessing teachers — which would partly measure teacher performance based on student academic growth — has some longtime teachers concerned.
“Some teachers have been evaluated the same way for years,” he said. “The student growth part is new to us, and new is sometimes scary.”
Hornbeck said the major reason the school district and the HEA agreed on a one-year contract — rather than a three-year contract as in the past — was because of looming pension reform.
“The school district is worried about paying toward (pensions) if the state decides not to,” he said. “And teachers are concerned about paying more or losing part of their (pension) benefit.”
The Rossville-Alvin Education Association and the grade school district — which employs 23 teachers and serves 309 pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students — reached an agreement Aug. 9 on a two-year contract.
Besides teachers, the Rossville-Alvin Education Association represents the district’s school bus drivers, teachers’ aides and kitchen staff.
Superintendent Crystal Johnson said contract negotiations were amicable.
“It was a great experience,” she said.
“We were open-minded and flexible,” she said. “We used interest-based bargaining which allowed us to explain what we’re (district) faced with and what we’re planning in the future.”
Although Rossville-Alvin faces similar financial challenges as other school districts around the state because of the decrease in state-aid payments, Johnson said the district felt it was important to compensate the staff.
“You have to pay your employees,” she said. “We felt like we needed to do something for them. We’re thankful for what they do.”
The new contract, which expires June 30, 2014, increases the certified teachers’ base salary by 2 percent to $26,710. A 1 percent increase was added to noncertified employees’ base salaries, which vary depending on job.
The agreement also gives staff a choice of a cash option of $395 per month for employees who are in the district’s health insurance plan to offset the cost of the coverage, or $310 a month to be invested in an annuity for employees who are not in the insurance plan.
Also included in the contract is a retirement incentive that is in effect for the 2012-13 school year.
Johnson explained that if teachers submit a letter of resignation by a certain date at the beginning of the school year, those teachers will receive a $10,000 post-resignation payment at the end of the school year. Teachers also can wait until March 1, 2013, to notify the school district of their intent to resign, but those teachers will receive a $5,000 post-resignation payment.
Johnson said teachers who intend to retire or resign at the end of this school year have to meet certain requirements to receive the post-resignation payment.
The new contract also contains language regarding the new teacher evaluation system that is required by state law, as well as something Johnson said “might seem like a little thing, but it’s a big thing for teachers.”
According to the new pact, teachers can leave up to 45 minutes early at the end of the school day up to three times a year as long as they have another teacher cover their classroom for them, Johnson said.