Teachers and administrators in the Newell-Fonda school district have exchanged their proposals for contract agreements for the 2002-2003 school year, and both sides are confident a deal will be negotiated before students are dismissed for summer vacation in May.
The teachers and the district have held two required open meetings concerning the issue, and have each given the other their proposals for a new pay and benefits package for the upcoming school year.
The teachers made an initial proposal of a 6-percent package increase during the first meeting on Dec. 17, while the school board counter-offered a 3.5 percent hike at the second collective bargaining meeting on Jan. 8.
The two sides are expected to meet again next month, and Newell-Fonda Superintendent Merle Boerner said both sides are confident the issue will be resolved over the next few months.
"We're definitely going to have something settled by the end of the school year," Boerner said. "With the way arbitration is set up, we would have an agreement finalized by an arbitrator by the end of the year even if we don't settle on our own, so this isn't going to stretch out beyond the end of the year at all."
"We're not worried about settling by the end of the year," Sue Nielsen, one of several negotiators for the teacher's union, said. "Right now we have some things that we agree on and some things we need to work on. We just want to get it done sooner rather than later."
The biggest sticking point in the negotiations concerns rising insurance costs and who will pay for them and how, as a major part of the increase in overall cost for teachers comes from the normal annual increase in insurance premiums.
"When you have 40 people on staff, that's a big amount of money that you have to look at in regards to insurance," Nielsen said. "That's the main concern we have right now, because that's a major cost. Once we know that, though, I don't think we'll have any other problems at all."
Financial issues stand out even more this year, as across-the-board cuts of 4.3 percent by the state will leave the district with less money than in previous years. The Newell-Fonda district will lose $61,979 from its budget as a result of the decline in state appropriations.
Slipping enrollment has also played a role, as fewer students have also caused the budget to decline over the past few years.
"With a declining enrollment situation, our budget isn't growing, so that plays a factor into this," Boerner said. "The state reductions will also have an affect on our budget as well."
"We like to negotiate in a climate of friendship with the board," Nielsen said. "We know we don't want to go in asking for a huge raise when we know that can't be done because of budget concerns. We're not going to go in and ask for anything outrageous at all."
The collective bargaining process occurs every year at Newell-Fonda, as no multi-year agreements between instructors and administrators have taken place within the district for more than a decade.