By Kevin Kelley
The Westlake City Schools and its teachers union on Jan. 16 separately approved a new 18-month contract that includes a 2.5-percent decrease in educators’ base salaries during the contract’s final 12 months.
For the first six months of the contract, teachers’ salaries will remain constant. The contract increases teachers’ health care contributions by 50 percent (from 10 percent to 15 percent) and their prescription copays by 33 percent. With the 2013-2014 school year, teachers have agreed to work an additional three days at professional development workshops with no additional compensation.
“It’s a concessionary contract,” said Amy Butcher, president of the Westlake Teachers Association and a special education teacher at Holly Lane Elementary School. The WTA represents about 300 teachers, counselors and media specialists in Westlake’s seven school buildings.
The most significant concession, Butcher said, was the 2.5-percent pay decrease, which in July will roll back base salaries to what they were for the 2011-2012 school year. The contract gave the union no guarantees that future layoffs will be avoided, Butcher said.
While not giving the specific tally, Butcher said the new contract passed “by a lot” in the Jan. 16 balloting. Even so, many educators were not pleased with the deal, she said.
“There were a lot of members who weren’t happy about it, but most of them understand why,” she said.
The “why” is the persistently sluggish economy and criticism from conservatives and taxpayer advocates that public school teachers have been able to avoid the pain so many other American workers have experienced in the past five years. Teacher union contracts in other Ohio districts passed in recent months have reflected the new economic realities, observers have noted.
With its concessions, the new contract will save the district more than $5 million over the next two and a half years, according to Superintendent Dan Keenan. He noted that amounts to about 10 percent of the district’s annual budget.
Board of Education members, who unanimously approved the pact, expressed gratitude to the union for the concessions. Labor contracts were a big topic for challengers during the last school board election in 2011, and incumbents pledged that future contracts would look different to reflect current economic realities.
One of those incumbents, Carol Winter, said the teachers’ concessions reflected the commitment of the educators.
“You really helped the district out,” she said.
Tony Falcone, elected in 2011 on the same ticket with Winter and board President Tom Mays, said he had promised the community he wanted to be fair to the teachers and the taxpayers.
“I think we accomplished both with this contract,” he said.
Nate Cross, who had been an ardent critic of labor costs in the district, said he was impressed by the concessions the teachers agreed to.
“Through this process, the teachers union has shown that they are willing to be equal partners and have been very fair to the district and the taxpayers,” he said. Cross, who had also been critical of fellow board members’ approach to financial issues, added that he was pleased with the way the board handled the negotiating process.
Cross also said he hoped the Westlake contract would become a model for other public school districts in Ohio.
“Salary reduction is largely unheard of (in teacher contracts),” Cross later told West Life. “And we got that.”
The previous union contract, which covered a four-year period, expired Dec. 31. Negotiations on the new contract took four months, Keenan said. The new contract is for only 18 months because the district cannot legally certify a contract beyond the time period it projects balanced budgets. Deficits will appear by the end of the 2014-2015 school year unless a new operating levy is passed or cuts are made, district officials said.
After approving the teachers’ contract, the school board discussed the likelihood of placing an operating levy before voters this year.
The district is also in negotiations for a new contract with its classified, or nonteaching, employees union.