Signed, not sealed

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Signed, not sealed | MCS contract reopener settled, concerns continue

Mason City Schools employees didn’t get much of a vacation this summer.

The teachers and Board of Education went through a lot of pressure to finally settle a one-year reopener in teacher contracts. According to Mason Education Association Vice President Maria Mueller, the disagreements and relationship between the two parties were also impacted by bigger picture policy changes, especially the switch to semesters.

According to Tracey Carson, Mason City Schools Public Information Officer, this switch to semesters dates back to a 10-year plan. As for teacher contract negotiations though, the tension from this summer can be traced to April 2011, when the MEA agreed to a contract roll-over and full freeze. According to MEA Recording Secretary Audrey Gorman, at the time, a two-year freeze on salary and experience steps seemed to be the most convenient option due to the economic downturn.

“We were uncertain as to the future of funding from the state,” Gorman said. “Everything was up in the air, new governor, we had all sorts of issues going on at the state level. So rather than trying to renegotiate a contract again, we decided to do a rollover, which meant that all the terms of the current contract would rollover then for two more years.”

It was decided then that the third year of this contract would reopen just salary and health care benefits, which is what the MEA and district began this past March. Gorman and other teachers, however, said they did not expect the process to span over five months or that it would lead to serious considerations of a strike.

“We didn’t anticipate having that much friction,” Gorman said.

Part of that friction, according to Gorman, can be attributed to MEA expectations. Teachers hadn’t received a pay increase in years and new teachers weren’t getting the experience steps they needed. Gorman said consequent financial burdens began to take a toll on families.

“Once we knew we were going to be negotiating, we expected that we would be rewarded or helped along as we had helped the district when they were in financial trouble,” Gorman said. “That’s not the way it went.”

According to Gorman and Mueller, another source of the teacher-district conflict was the apparent lack of collaboration between the two parties about semesters.

“There was never a point where it was, ‘We’re thinking about (changing) this,’” Mueller said.  “At least not from my perspective. There was a point (two years ago) where it was, ‘This is what we’re doing.’”

Carson, however, contested that there was plenty of teamwork in the decision-making.

“Conversations about semesters have been around as long as we’ve been on the trimester,” Carson said. “Mrs. McCarty-Stewart led a team of students, parents, teachers and other adminstrators who researched a variety of schedule scenarios. The committee presented its findings to the staff, and asked for formal feedback via a survey twice, and offered numerous occasions for staff to informally give feedback…The committee used all of the feedback to determine the schedule.”

Despite those actions, the MEA still went forward with a rare, no-confidence vote in Superintendent Gail Kist-Kline on June 4. According to Mueller, the MEA still has concerns with the bigger picture of Mason education.

“Part of why I think that so many people have lost confidence in the leadership in the district is because of the lack of collaborative spirit,” Mueller said. “We were very used to and very delighted with previous central office administrations seeing the teachers as a body that was rather valuable, rather essential to big picture policy making…that certainly is concerning and disheartening and kind of sad.”

Mueller said this change of direction sends the message of lost faith to the 644 professionals in the MEA. According to Gorman, things weren’t always like this.

“We’ve enjoyed in Mason a really good relationship between our board and our administration and our teachers union and that feels very different now,” Gorman said. “It’s just a different climate that we’re negotiating in…When Kevin Bright was superintendent…It was more collaborative. We really felt like we were ahead of the curve on changes that were (going to) happen.”

For now, the MEA and the district have come to an agreement for the 2014-2015 year. The contract, which was settled in July, is one that Gor- man said required a lot of com- promise from both sides. In the upcoming months, it will all begin again — for a brand new, three-year contract.

“I’m satisfied with the agreement,” Gorman said. “I’m nervous that it took us so long…(because) a one-year reopener should have been a fairly quick process, and it took us so long and was so divisive. I’m very nervous about going into this round of contract negotiations…as to how long it will be drawn out this time.”

While Carson has said before that teachers deserve to be fairly compensated, the district must also be aware of budget reality. Much of the discussion has been focused on staying in line with the market. With regards to semesters, the schedule change was also a result of cost-cutting goals.

“The need to re-examine the schedule gained more traction when two things started aligning — additional state mandates that included end-of-course exams and our need to be more cost-efficient following the levy loss in 2010,” Carson said.

According to Mueller, fear of another failed levy should not have stopped the district from turning to the community.

“As a group of teachers what we see is a lack of willingness to sell the district,” Mueller said. “We totally understand that people, rightfully so, are money conscious…They certainly don’t want their tax dollars being spent (whimsically). But I think there’s plenty of evidence to show it’s not (being spent that way) and that a greater investment is necessary to not just maintain the high standard  (and) the expectation for staff and students that we have here, but to help us to grow and further improve, to not become complacent and rest on our laurels…There just seems to be such little evidence that it’s an educationally sound decision for this district.”

In fact, Mueller and Gorman point to the benefits of the trimester to be responsible for Mason’s prestigious, innovative education system. Even though the semester system brings less class time and more students per classroom, Carson provided examples of other top-performing schools, like Walnut Hills and Indian Hill that use semesters. Mueller, however, said that Mason’s large size and unique community doesn’t necessarily make it an equitable comparison to other districts. Despite the politics behind semesters, teachers say they are committed to adaptation and keeping the effects in the classroom minimal.

“We’re gonna take whatever circumstance it is and make it work,” Mueller said. “Of course we are. It’s  not that we’re gonna look at semesters and (say), ‘Oh that’s never going to work.’ We just don’t function that way. Do we think it’s the best choice? No. Are we gonna make it work? Absolutely…The success of our students is our number one goal.”

According to Mueller, it all comes down to quality of education — in the local and national light. She said even if Mason continues to succeed with the new semesters, settling for a method that everyone else uses might not be the groundbreaking change that today’s public education demands.

“Education has been embattled for a (few decades) now,” Mueller said. “There’s been this very public struggle to improve education, (and) well throughout that struggle, certainly a traditional semester structure has been sort of a constant…As a professional educator, even while we’re bringing wild success to our students, we still have a responsibility to make the system the best it can be.”

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