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School district, teachers agree after healthcare help provided

The Oak Harbor Education Association announced Friday that it has reached a tentative contract agreement with Oak Harbor School District.

Members of the teachers’ union were expected to ratify the collective bargaining agreement at a membership meeting Friday night, said Peter Szalai, co-president of OHEA.

“We reached a tentative agreement with the district last night,” Szalai said Friday, adding that union leadership is “very pleased.”

District officials are also happy the two sides are finally able to agree, but also say they never expected that they wouldn’t.

“We’re glad,” said Rick Schulte, superintendent of schools. “We were confident all along that we’d be able to reach a settlement.”

After months of bargaining, the latest contract offered by the district and the school board was enough to persuade the union’s leadership to recommend Friday that the members vote to ratify, Szalai said. The three-year agreement was hammered out in a final four-hour bargaining session Thursday night.

Oak Harbor teachers began the school year Thursday without a contract, after the previous contract expired Aug. 31. Prior to Thursday night’s meeting between the union and the school district, the two sides were about $100,000 apart in the areas of pay and benefits, according to Szalai.

“For the first time the school board has agreed to help teachers pay for health care,” Szalai said. “The most significant thing (about the proposal) is the admission that there’s a local responsibility to teachers’ health care coverage.”

Out-of-pocket expenses for health care coverage has skyrocketed recently, Szalai said, eroding any salary gains teachers have made in the past couple years. Teachers were wondering how they’d be able to provide adequate health insurance for themselves and their families.

“I think the benefits issue is a really important issue,” Schulte said, stating that he understands the impact of an increase in premiums. Health insurance premiums overall have increased between 15 and 40-percent in recent years, he said. “That’s a big impact on somebody’s resources.”

The district has agreed to contribute $240 per teacher per year in the first year of the agreement, $300 in the second year, and $360 in the third year, to help reduce out-of-pocket expenses.

Additionally, the district and the board have agreed to to fund the “183rd day” of pay for teachers each year of the agreement and to gradually raise the pay of substitutes over the next three years.

While Szalai says the district and the board have taken strides toward better compensating teachers, there is still room for discussion. Both the district and the union have a built-in one-time per year reopener to amending the contract over the term of the agreement.

“The school board does not quite fully understand the real burden of escalating health care costs and it’s going to be our job in the coming year to educate them...on the real burden,” Szalai said. “It should be no surprise that this will be an issue.”

The district, Szalai said, can afford to increase fringe benefits to teachers if it “makes teachers a priority.”

However, Schulte said that the state should help pick up the tab for health care coverage for teachers as part of basic education funding.

“It’s extremely disappointing that the state doesn’t see it as a state responsibility,” Schulte said.

You can reach News-Times reporter Christine Smith at csmith@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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