News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Indiana Legislature

April 22, 2011

School districts rush to get ahead of new bargaining law

INDIANAPOLIS — School districts throughout Indiana have been rushing to enter into long-term labor contracts with their teachers’ unions in an attempt to skirt a new law that limits what they can put into those agreements.

In doing so, some have won significant concessions on pay and benefits that may save their districts millions of dollars at a time when education funding is undergoing a major shift.

Others have entered into long-term contracts in hopes the new law will be revised or repealed by the time those contracts run out.

Pushing the rush are two major provisions of Senate Bill 575 that kicked into effect as soon as Gov. Mitch Daniels signed the bill Wednesday.

Those provisions immediately:

• prohibit any new teacher labor contracts from extending beyond July 2013; and,

• stop any current bargaining negotiations on teacher evaluation procedures.

The rest of the bill, including a provision that nullifies a labor contract if the school district commits itself to spending more money on salaries than what the state allocates to the district, goes into effect July 1.

Republican lawmakers who backed the bill that limits collective bargaining to wages and wage-related benefits only aren’t happy that some districts jumped the gun.

“I think they’ll find they’ve made a mistake,” said Sen. Luke Kenley, a Republican from Noblesville who helped craft the budget bill that now contains more than $10 million in merit-pay incentives for teachers.

Kenley said school districts that signed on to new contracts that base teacher pay on seniority likely won’t be eligible to receive any of that funding. A related education bill in the General Assembly would require schools to tie pay to performance-based teacher evaluations.

But opponents of the bill said they encouraged school districts to move quickly to lock in their contracts before the legislation became law. “I told them, the sooner the better,” said Sen. Tim Skinner, a Democrat from Terre Haute, who said the new law “undermines trust between teachers and administrators.”

The rush to get ahead of the new collective bargaining law caught at least one school district short. The Maconaquah School Corp., a rural school district north of Kokomo, had scheduled a special board meeting for Wednesday evening to sign off on a five-year contract with its teachers.

But the superintendent had to cancel the meeting late Wednesday after he found out the governor had signed Senate Bill 575 just 90 minutes before the board was scheduled to meet. The governor's signature, placed on the bill at 4:57 p.m. Wednesday, immediately put into effect the provision that barred labor contracts extending beyond July of 2013, when the state's next two-year budget expires.

Doug Arnold, the Maconaquah schools superintendent, said teachers and administrators alike were upset. “We wanted to work with our teachers on a contract that gave us some long-term stability and local control,” Arnold said. “But the bottom line is, we ran out of time.”

Dennis Costerison, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Business Officials, said local teachers unions had initiated the push for early contract negotiations, which are usually done in the summer. 

Costerison said some school boards welcomed it, seeing it as opportunity to get concessions that could save their districts money. The school board in Clark County, for example, got its teachers to agree to let go of a health insurance plan that cost only $1 a year for a single plan. Teachers will now pay $100 a month under the new contract.

In Logansport, teachers and administrators agreed to extend their current contract into 2014, with teachers agreeing to no raises. Logansport Superintendent Michele Starkey told the Pharos-Tribune newspaper that there was deep concern about the state dictating what local school districts could do. “We wanted to make sure we still had some local control over what we were doing,” Starkey said.

Costerison said some local districts intentionally signed off on long-term contracts, in hopes that the new law will be revised or repealed in future legislative sessions.

The collective bargaining bill is part of a sweeping education-reform agenda pushed by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett. Bennett said the bill is critical in helping school superintendents become more flexible in how they meet increasingly tougher standards in student achievement.

Bennett said he’d heard there were districts around the state that were pushing to get ahead of the changes that the bill will mandate. “My hope,” he sad, “is that school corporations have been able to utilize the leverage of Senate Bill 525 to get the things they need to do to better serve children.” 

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for The Tribune-Star. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com

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