Caitlin Friend-Rush, first-grade teacher at Pleasant Street School, gives her students instructions prior to a grammar evaluation. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)
‘Faith restored’ as teachers learn of contract approval
By RICK GREEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Fourth-grade teacher Mandy Youssef said there was a great feeling around Elm Street School as word circulated about significant pay raises.
“Our faith has been restored in the city and in the school board,” she said Tuesday, the day after the City Council approved a five-year contract containing the salary hikes.
The salaries of Laconia’s 191 teachers are well below those of colleagues in most neighboring school districts.
A contract approved by the City Council, 4-1, Monday night is intended to reverse that trend.
Councilor Brenda Baer, who voted against the contract, said it was premature to consider it before the council has decided on the city budget.
Youssef has two daughters, ages 2 and 4, who will be entering the school district.
“I can't say enough positive things about what is going on in our schools and I'm more than happy to have children coming through our system,” she said. “This new contract gives me faith we can retain the amazing teachers we have here.”
The budget agreement came after the School Board and the City Council held study sessions to arrive at a funding mechanism that didn't require any alteration to the city's property tax cap.
Caitlin Friend-Rushton, who teaches first grade at Pleasant Street School, said there were positive feelings on campus Tuesday.
“I think it really is wonderful that the City Council and the School Board could come together,” she said. “This really strengthens the community as a whole. We're really feeling appreciated today.”
Superintendent Dr. Brendan Minnihan said competitive wages and stability provided by the contract should help with recruitment and retention of teachers.
Ten teachers have said they won't be coming back next year. Some, including New Hampshire Teacher of the Year Tate Aldrich, are going to neighboring districts where they can immediately boost their income by thousands of dollars.
People don't seek a career in education to make a lot of money, but that doesn't mean pay isn't important.
“Money isn't the only thing,” Minnihan said. “But at certain point, when some of these teachers can earn $8,000, $10,000, $15,000 more a year elsewhere, to some extent it does become partly about the money.”
Teachers have been working without a contract. Yearly salary step increases for experience have not been granted in four out of the last 12 years. Sixty percent of teachers in Laconia are four steps behind the step they ought to be on based on their tenure.
In the first year of the contract, all salary steps get a $700 increase, and all teachers will immediately gain a step. Those at the top experience level will get a $1,700 pay hike.
Those who are four steps behind will gain two steps in the first year of the contract. A teacher making $39,413 could see as much as a $2,293 salary increase.
Increases in subsequent years are intended to bring Laconia teacher salaries to the level of the Gilford district, where a teacher with five years of experience now makes $43,223.
Councilor Baer has been outspoken in opposition.
“I don't see how we can possibly pass a contract with this kind of money in it when we haven't passed the budget,” she said. “We haven't seen the school budget, and I think for us to go ahead and do something of this size should wait until it comes before us in the budget process.
In a letter to the editor, she said the city faces various potential increases in costs in the coming year and that pay increases for other city departments have been limited to cost of living adjustments. She also noted about half of the city budget is spent on schools.
“Our Police Department gets only 6 percent of city tax money,” she said. “With the drug problem we have, don’t they have a good argument for more? The Fire Department also gets only 6 percent. Public Works gets 8 percent and the school gets 49.4 percent, but these raises would boost that percentage by quite a bit.
“Can we not expect other departments to feel they, too, are entitled to substantial raises?”
Councilor Ava Doyle spoke in favor of the contract.
“I think we need to bring the teachers up to parity with other areas and if we don't make a step like this, I don't know how it's going to happen,” she said. “We'd just get further and further behind.”
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