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May 30. 2013 11:55PM

Manchester teacher contract talks hit impasse

MANCHESTER — Contract talks with the teachers union have hit a familiar obstacle: health care concessions.

The Manchester Education Association and the school board’s negotiations subcommittee have declared that they are at an official impasse over the new contract.

The impasse comes after the Board of School Committee Wednesday approved a new contract with the district’s paraprofessionals, as well as the district’s nonaffiliated employees.

The agreement will double to triple the premium rates and co-pays in the employees’ health insurance plans, and it would tie raises to the rise in the Consumer Price Index, rather than existing cost-of-living and step formulas.

According to the district’s business administrator, the new paraprofessional contract will result in $514,000 in savings over the two years of the contract and roughly $60,000 in savings for the nonaffiliated employees.

An article in Thursday’s New Hampshire Union Leader incorrectly reported the amount of savings.

Ward 10 board member John Avard, the chair of the negotiations committee, said similar offers were extended to the other bargaining units.

Ben Dick, the president of the MEA, said it was “slightly misleading” to say that the teachers were extended the same offer as the paraprofessionals and other unions.

“The district was already earmarking the savings (from any health care concessions), and that precluded us from the type of return items that other groups are getting,” he said.

He declined to discuss the specifics of what the teachers were seeking, but he indicated that the health care concessions sought were too steep, too soon.

“I think the priority is not to triple what we pay health care overnight, to get there in a more realistic time frame, rather than right at July 1,” Dick said, adding, “It’s not a question of getting to the destination; it’s a question of how long we take to get there.”

Dick said the union’s executive board will meet next Tuesday to discuss its next steps.

“Both sides have agreed to leave their offers out,” he said. “It will be up to the board whether to pursue other action, tweak the offer, or go with what’s there.”

Most of the savings from the paraprofessional contract come from switching from the current health care plan, which has a 7 percent employee contribution rate, to one of three new plans. Employees can choose an HMO or POS (Point Of Service) plan with a 20 percent rate, or a Health Savings Account with a 15 percent rate. The switch is projected to save the district $1.2 million in the first year of the contract.

That will result in a net pay raise for the employees over the current contract, costing the district an additional $148,000 in 2014 and $152,000 in 2015.

There are 307 paraprofessionals in the district who assist teachers in classroom and help special education students. A likely incentive for the employees was job security. In recent years, budget pressures have led the district and the school board to consider mass layoffs for the paraprofessionals.

Mayor Ted Gatsas abstained on the vote Wednesday for the paraprofessional contract, because the contract still must be approved by the aldermen.

“I’m sure the board is going to be asking a lot of questions,” he said.

Gatsas voted against the agreement with nonaffiliated employees because he wanted more information, which district officials could not immediately furnish.

Gatsas called the health care concessions “a good point” in the contracts, but he questioned the wisdom of pegging raises to the CPI. “What happens if it goes to 7 percent?” he asked.

Gatsas has identified health care concessions as a key to freeing up money in the budget to address the district’s teacher shortage.

In the past, the mayor has negotiated directly with the district employee unions, but this year the school board designated its own committee and hired legal counsel to conduct the negotiations.

Avard said talks with the three other bargaining units were continuing. “We’re still working. Things are going very well,” he said.

tsiefer@unionleader.com


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