December 17, 2014

Elyria
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Return of step increases could cost school district millions

LORAIN — Two years ago, Lorain teachers agreed to forego pay raises — known in the education arena as “step increases” — as the district struggled to balance its books.

But the memorandum of understanding signed by the Lorain Education Association and the school district didn’t end the practice. Rather, it simply postponed the payments until July of this year, and that bill is now coming due.

Earlier this month, both teachers and school officials voted to ratify a new three-year contract that brings back step increases on a schedule that will have some teachers receiving upward of a 16 percent raise over the course of the next 18 months.

“It will depend on where teachers are on the pay schedule as to who will receive the raise,” Lorain Schools Treasurer Dale Weber said.

About 38 percent of the Lorain Education Association membership falls within the 15 to 25 years of service category and will not receive step increases. The remaining membership falls within the one to 14 years of service area and are due increases averaging 3.7 percent, effective in January 2014, September 2014 and January 2015.

The three-year pact also includes a 1 percent raise in base pay in the first year. The union and school officials will return to the bargaining table in October 2014 to negotiate whether raises will occur in the second and third year of the contract.

Weber said the unfreezing of the step increases was always something the district planned to do and the 2011 agreement with the teachers union spelled out as much. It also came with roughly $4 million in concessions the Lorain Education Association made at a time when the district was facing bankruptcy and state takeover.

“This is not just about the steps. Two million of health care costs were also rolled back by the districts,” he said. “It was an agreement reached with an understanding the giveback would not be forever.”

But the increases come at a cost.

According to numbers provided by Weber, the additional salary cost for the step raises for the next three fiscal years is $639,000 for 2014, nearly $1.6 million for 2015 and $1.9 million for 2016. The figured do not include any increases for education incentives, which are counted separately.

Deficits are predicted in 2017-18 and 2018-19 — $2.1 million and $9.5 million, respectively. Weber said the additional salary cost were included in the district’s five-year forecast.

Lorain is not the only district to bring back some sort of step increase salary chart after freezing such pay advances years ago.

A new contract between union teachers and North Canton Schools lifted a freeze on step increases that was put in place to help the district deal with financial struggles. However, teachers will not make up the ground they lost four years ago or see base pay increases.

In many cases, an agreement is forged that either favors step increases or base salary increases.
On Monday, Cuyahoga Falls district and teachers came to an agreement that includes a 2 percent raise over the next two years, but does not bring back step pay raises that were frozen in 2011. To balance, each union member who did not receive a step increase will receive a one-time payment of $500.

Gary Taylor, the Elyria Schools director of human resources, said he would not be surprised if contract talks slated to start in March 2014 included step increases. In 2011, when Elyria and the Elyria Education Association forged a three-year agreement it froze step increases for tenure, left step increases for advance education attainment intact and gave a 1.9 percent increase in base salary.

“I’ve watched how contract negotiations are going in other districts and you can see it’s prevalent that unions are coming back and asking for the step increases back,” he said. “I’m certain that will be addressed next spring when we begin.”

Taylor said only time will tell how those negotiations will fare.

“I couldn’t even begin to speculate. Those pay schedules have been a part of public education for many, many years,” he said. “I know two years ago in our own situation it was something we could not afford. Two plus years later, not much has changed.”

Jay Pickerington, president of the 450-member Lorain Education Association, previously said the agreement strikes a good balance for the district.

“We know they just got done with a very difficult stretch money-wise and we’re starting to see the light,” he said the day the board unanimously voted to accept the contract. “We want to see them get stable and then we can both honestly look at the numbers in a year and say what’s fair for everybody.”

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.