Oak Harbor teachers and school district reach deal

Peter Szalai, president of the Oak Harbor Education Association, had been vocal at recent school board meetings about his concerns over stalled negotiations between the teachers and school district. But that changed June 7 when the district and teachers agreed on a new three-year deal.   - Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times
Peter Szalai, president of the Oak Harbor Education Association, had been vocal at recent school board meetings about his concerns over stalled negotiations between the teachers and school district. But that changed June 7 when the district and teachers agreed on a new three-year deal.
— image credit: Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times

Teachers in the Oak Harbor School District are breathing a collective sigh of relief after reaching a three-year contract agreement.

Tensions were mounting between the Oak Harbor Education Association and school district after a series of negotiations resulted in little progress. But, during the last scheduled meeting June 7, both sides reached agreement on a new deal following seven hours of negotiations.

The Oak Harbor School Board voted unanimously to approve the contract Tuesday night, allowing teachers to head into the summer break with a weight off their shoulders.

The last day of school in the district for the 2012-13 school year was Friday.

“I think the teachers are very pleased and relieved,” said Kathy Ridle, vice president of the OHEA and elementary school literacy coach. “We wanted a settlement so we didn’t have it hanging over us for the summer.”

Teachers were seeking a new deal before their one-year contract expires in August.

Peter Szalai, president of the OHEA and a history teacher at Oak Harbor Middle School, expressed concerns to the school board in recent months after talks between the two negotiating teams had gained little ground.

But compromises began at the June 7 meeting, resulting in the first three-year contract for Oak Harbor teachers since 2005.

Out of that agreement, Oak Harbor teachers will receive two new professional days for time spent beyond the classroom and an additional planning day between semesters to wrap up the first semester and get ready for the second.

The contract also calls for a day and a half of professional development focusing on school district initiatives to improve student learning tied to Department of Defense grants. That professional development time won’t start until 2014-15 school year.

The new contract also includes reimplementation of 3-1/2 days of student learning time and parent-teacher conferences eliminated two years ago when the state legislature cut teacher pay by 1.9 percent.

According to the Oak Harbor School District, the state is expected to return that pay to the same level provided three years ago, which will bring a return of the lost classroom and conference time.

Cost for the additional days represents a 3 percent salary increase for Oak Harbor teachers over a three-year period. It’s the first contract increase for the school district’s 300-plus teachers in seven years.

“Every dollar is associated with work time in the contract,” said Lance Gibbon, who becomes Oak Harbor schools’ new superintendent on July 1.

School board member Christine Cribb said that she wants it to be clear that money going toward the teachers’ salary increase is not coming from local levy funds approved by voters this past February; instead it’s coming from state and federal sources.

School board members are upholding the promise made during the levy campaign, Cribb said.

“The money coming into take care of this contract is coming from state and federal funds, not the local school levy, and that’s really critical,” she said.

Kurt Schonberg, human resources director for the Oak Harbor schools and head of the school district’s negotiating team, said agreeing to a three-year contract is beneficial for both parties in many ways.

The negotiating process is demanding on both sides, he said.

“Having experienced a one-year deal and the uncertainty that that brings to the staff and to my bargaining team, it’s a significant time commitment for both,” he said.

Ultimately, the main issues centered on time teachers spend outside of the classroom.

The district’s early release of students on Mondays will continue, Schonberg said.

“Teachers recognized they’ve got a lot of duties they need to fulfill outside the school day,” Schonberg said, “and we have increasing amounts of mandates that must be met.”

“Teaching has never fit into a convenient work schedule,” Ridle said.

Oak Harbor schools will begin implementing a new state-mandated principal-teacher evaluation system for new teachers beginning in the fall.

Principals will be juggling different methods of evaluating new and existing staff while teachers will need to adjust to the new system.

Timing of the agreement made for a happy conclusion to the school year for teachers.

Alice Mikos, librarian at Oak Harbor Middle School, attended Tuesday night’s school board meeting to express her gratitude for the contract being resolved. She was one of only a handful of teachers in attendance, a stark contrast to a pair of meetings in late May when teachers crowded the room in a unified effort to remind school board members of the precarious state of negotiations.

“I think there’s much relief,” said Jeff Laiblin, a social studies teacher at North Whidbey Middle School who’s part of the teachers union’s negotiating team. “We don’t have to worry about it for three years.”

“We have a plan for the next three years that will benefit students, while keeping our costs below the average of other school districts in our region,” Gibbon said. “It’s a good plan that will allow us to focus on academics and keep Oak Harbor moving forward in the right direction for improved learning.”


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