DALLAS TWP. — Typically when teachers strike, there are two sticking points: Salaries and health insurance. But the man spearheading negotiations for Dallas School District teachers said the union voted to strike Sept. 28 because the two sides can’t even agree on the little things.
“We don’t have an agreement on one single issue,” union lead negotiator John Holland said Wednesday, the morning after the union voted to give the district a state-required notice of the strike. “We can’t even get agreement on the softball issues.
“We’ve discussed salary and health care, but haven’t even gone deep into the weeds on this.”
District Solicitor Vito DeLuca didn’t disagree on the basic premise: “He’s right, we have not agreed on any issue.” But he said that’s because the board, from the start, said the big money issues of salary and insurance had to be addressed.
“Despite the tremendous value we place on the professional staff — and the Dallas education system is very successful — simple economics limit any option to resolve their contract without some reformation of their salary matrix and some meaningful concession on health care.”
DeLuca noted the annual state restriction on property tax increases has been so low that even when the district raises them to the maximum, the extra money barely covers increases in pension costs and health insurance. Pension payment rates are set by a state agency, not the district.
The strike is contingent upon progress in upcoming talks, Holland said, and the two sides agreed to five sessions in four weeks: Sept. 8, 13, 19, 22 and 26.
“The teachers don’t want a strike,” Holland insisted. “I’ve never met a teacher yet who said ‘I want to go on strike’.”
Holland declined to give specifics on the issues he’d like to see changed, but he did confirm one: The contract requires woman who become pregnant to notify the district.
“That’s an example of a softball issue. I don’t know why it’s in the contract or how it ever got there,” Holland said. “Obviously it’s a very ancient requirement.”
The current contract expired last summer and the two sides have been negotiating since January 2015. Holland said he joined negotiations 18 months ago.
While Holland declined to give any other sticking points, DeLuca said the board has pushed for insurance premium sharing from the beginning. Dallas teachers currently do not pay anything toward health insurance premiums, and in past negotiations for other districts Holland has strongly opposed it.
Holland did say the union has made proposed insurance changes to help save money.
DeLuca also pointed to the pay matrix of the last contract, a grid that shows raises for each year (columns) up to 16 years, and for every six college credits above a bachelor’s degree (steps) up to 36 credits beyond a master’s degree.
DeLuca said that there are spots on the matrix where a teacher can get “an 11 percent increase in one year,” while the state limit on property taxes recently has hovered below 3 percent.
A quick review of the expired contract bolsters his claim. A teacher with a bachelors degree and three years experience in 2011-12 got a base salary of $35,295; in 2012-13 the base salary for the same teacher with four years experience was $39,074 — an increase of 10.7 percent. By comparison, the district’s maximum property tax increase allowed by state law in 2012-13 was 2.1 percent.
By law, a teacher union must give the district notice of a strike at least 48 hours in advance. Holland said the extended notice was to give the two sides a chance to come together on terms, and to give parents time to prepare if a strike should happen.
Teachers can strike twice in one school year. The first strike must end in time for the district to complete the state-mandated 180 days of school by June 15, while a second strike must end in time to complete the 180 days by June 30. Once a strike starts, the state calculates how long it can go on before teachers must return to work.
State law requires non-binding arbitration after the first strike ends. Both sides provide their “final best offers” to a third party, who proposes a resolution. If either side rejects the arbiter’s proposal, the union has the legal option of striking a second time.
“We want to resolve this, I’m hopeful we can,” Holland said. “I’m hopeful the board wants to resolve it and I believe they do.”
Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish