School Board makes changes under new rules for public unions

Friday, November 2, 2018

The Alta-Aurelia School Board met Tuesday to update policies, one of which was the board’s policy on collective bargaining.

The board’s policy was changed to reflect Iowa’s changes, made in the 2017 state legislative session, for public unions.

Unions in Alta-Aurelia had to recertify this month—part of new rules under the 2017 law that make public unions recertify (affirm that employees wish to remain in a union) every year. Of 69 voting employees, 52 voted in favor of recertifying (those who do not vote count as a “no” vote.)

“Why wouldn’t you?” said Evans on recertification, which he said seems like a no-brainer to most teachers.

“Having to go through the process every year just seems cumbersome,” he said. “What’s the chance of it changing dramatically from year to year?” Evans said his teachers and school staff appreciate having representation to stick up for them.

New rules introduced and passed largely by Republican legislators last year created separate bargaining processes for public safety and non-public safety workers, effectively preserving most existing bargaining rights for public employees such as law enforcement officers and firefighters while eroding the rights of public employees such as teachers.

School districts like Alta-Aurelia’s are still required to work with teacher unions to set base wages, but the new law takes other subjects that were once negotiable off the table, like seniority, grievances, benefits, insurance and work conditions.

Previously, gridlock between management and teachers would require an independent arbitrator to choose the most reasonable of both the union’s and management’s best offers.

Now, should negotiation reach gridlock, arbitrators are required to consider the district’s ability to finance wage increases, limiting any increases to either a 3 percent raise or a percent equal to the cost of living outlined by the consumer price index—whichever is lower.

Democrats said that the cap in arbitration takes away any incentive for districts to bargain.

Opponents contended the bill could leave rural districts with little ability to compete with suburban and urban districts with more financial flexibility. In years like 2018 where 1 percent increases in state funding are lower than the forecasted U.S. inflation rate (1.9 percent), with many rural schools seeing trends of flat or declining enrollment, extra finances may be necessary to retain teachers when other benefits are no longer negotiable.

In February 2017, then-Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds said, “These changes are necessary. It gives [school districts] the opportunity to reward good employees,” based on merit rather than seniority.

Gov. Reynolds, running for re-election this year against Fred Hubbell, is facing criticism for her potential plans to change Iowa Public Employees Retirement System (IPERS), should she be re-elected.

Though Reynolds has pledged that she won’t slash retirement benefits already earned by existing teachers and public employees, she has not ruled out changes to the program.

Skeptics point to the handling of the state’s privatization of Medicaid as a potential parallel for changes. The state’s Medicaid privatization has faced a myriad of problems since its transition, from delayed nursing home payments, to denials of necessary care to patients under new private managed care organizations.

Reynolds said in September that with any changes being debated for Iowa’s pension programs, her first priority of consideration would be ensuring there are sufficient numbers to honor promises made. Some states have shifted to 401(k)-style defined-contribution plans or hybrid systems.

IPERS has a funded ratio of 81 percent—fairly well off—according to an actuarial study released in December. The funded ratio is the value of a pension’s assets divided by a measure of the pension’s obligations. Estimates among the 100 largest U.S. public pension plans have an average funded ratio of 71.2 percent.