May 22. 2014 9:30PM

Manchester teachers' union resoundingly rejects contract

New Hampshire Union Leader

MANCHESTER — The city teachers union has voted down a proposed four-year contract that would have raised single-digit health care premiums to 15 to 20 percent, while guaranteeing $900 yearly raises for all teachers, including those already at the top of the salary scale.

Members of the Manchester Education Association voted 391-196 Wednesday night to reject the four-year contract, which had the backing of the MEA’s executive board.

Mayor Ted Gatsas, who worked over the past several months alongside district officials to come up with the contract, said he was “sad” that it had been voted down.

“The executive team, the superintendent and myself worked awful hard to come up with something that made sense,” he said Thursday.

Gatsas said the contract was projected to save the city $2.5 million in its first year, which could have gone a long away toward addressing a looming budget deficit for the 2015 fiscal year that begins July 1.

Over the four years of the contract, the net additional cost of the contract to the city would have been about $4.5 million, Gatsas said.

MEA President Ben Dick said he’s still analyzing why the proposed contract was rejected by a 2-to-1 margin. “We brought together an agreement that we were hoping the membership would accept, and they didn’t,” he said. “That just means we need to reevaluate what went wrong and address those issues and work toward getting a contract they feel they can approve.”

A centerpiece of the proposed contract was a new salary schedule that would have replaced the past system of cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) raises. The flat $900 yearly raises was seen as a more fair and reliable alternative to COLAs, which can fluctuate from 1 to 2 percent and vary depending on the salary.

The schedule still leaves in place a step system whereby teachers’ pay, after their first three years, increases by roughly $2,000 to $4,000 every two years up until their 14th year. Under the proposed pay schedule, a starting teacher with a bachelor’s degree would make $38,000. In the fourth year of the contract, he or she would be making $43,200. A veteran teacher with 14 years or more in the district would make $64,500 in the first year of the contract and $66,300 in the fourth year.

The teachers have been working without a contract since September. In the absence of a contract, teacher pay is frozen but the existing health care plans, with 7 percent premium rates, remain in place. The arrangement is more onerous for newer teachers than veteran teachers at the top of the pay scale; 62 percent of Manchester teachers have 14 or more years of experience in the district, Dick said.

This is the latest round of negotiations between the teachers union and city officials to run aground. In 2012, the MEA voted down contract modifications that officials said could have prevented more than 160 layoffs.