Gilford Middle School social studies teacher Alyson Cahoon works late in her classroom. (David Carkhuff/Laconia Daily Sun)
By DAVID CARKHUFF, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Entry-level teachers with a bachelor's degree in the Laconia School District earned a mid-range $36,412 this past school year, but their incentive to stay promptly took a nosedive, according to a teacher salary comparison for the Lakes Region.
An entry-level teacher with a master's degree in Laconia earned $41,507, placing that teacher in the seventh tier out of 12 districts, according to the comparison. In the fifth year of employment in Laconia, that same teacher earned $44,929, or 11th out of 12 districts in the 2016-2017 school year comparison.
The salary comparison was provided by the Gilford School District during that school board's preparation of a budget and negotiated contract.
Now, the Gilmanton School District is hoping to convince voters that teachers there deserve pay increases, following a setback at the polls for local instructors.
Health insurance, a cost that has plagued school districts throughout the Lakes Region, has become a bargaining chip for Gilmanton teachers.
Gilmanton's proposed teacher contract — the second this year — awaits the public's vote, and teachers agreed to take on a higher share of soaring health insurance costs in return for increased salaries, according to parties to the latest negotiation.
"Our salaries for the Lakes Region, we're in the lower (tier). That was one of our goals was to try and bring us closer," said Nancy Tothill, chief negotiator for the Gilmanton Education Association.
Entry-level teachers with a bachelor's degree in Gilmanton last year earned $34,600, lowest in the 12-district comparison. In years five and 15, respectively, teachers with a bachelor's degree earned $39,011 and $49,026, still at the bottom of the 12-district area comparison.
Gilmanton Education Association sought to draw closer to a salary of about $70,000 for a teacher with a master's degree and 30 years of experience, "and ours was at about $63,000," Tothill said.
"Our goal this time was to get us closer to that $70,000, but all the school districts were also renegotiating contracts, so as much as we were moving closer to it, they were moving, too," she said.
On Wednesday, April 19, the Gilmanton Budget Committee unanimously endorsed the proposed teachers' collective bargaining agreement. The new agreement calls for increases in contract spending of $90,233 in fiscal year 2018, $89,488 in fiscal year 2019 and $98,030 in fiscal year 2020.
A special deliberative session to discuss the proposed teachers' collective bargaining agreement is Tuesday, May 16, at 7 p.m. in the Gilmanton School multi-purpose room. Voting Day is 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, June 13, at the Gilmanton Academy Building.
On March 14, Gilmanton voters turned down a previous collective bargaining agreement reached between the Gilmanton School Board and the Gilmanton Education Association. This previous agreement called for increases in salaries and benefits of $41,311 in 2017-2018; $129,327 in 2018-2019; and $133,211 in 2019-2020.
Brian Forst of the Gilmanton Budget Committee said the Budget Committee's vote was 5-3 to not recommend the initial contract in January. The Budget Committee insisted at the time that health insurance costs were not being contained.
"It was a unanimous vote to support this one, and last time it was a 5-3 vote not to support," Forst said, noting that the new agreement tackles the rising cost of health insurance.
"The average household is not seeing these kinds of increases in their income, and therefore it's hard for them to swallow these kinds of increases coming out of their pocket," he said.
"We drew a line a year or two ago and said we need to start getting a handle on this, it cannot keep going — 7, 9 (percent) — it can't keep going at these rates," Forst said.
The 85 percent share that the district now pays for teachers' health insurance was slated to rise to 97 percent under the previous proposed contract. Under this new plan, the district contribution will drop from 95 percent to 93 percent and 91 percent in the third year.
"The basis of the new contract is we're willing to pay them a little more money in salary, but we want control of how much this insurance is going to cost. You're going to have to take a policy with a deductible," Forst said.
In February, Laconia School Board members grappled with personnel costs, including retirement system and health insurance cost spikes.
Mike Persson of the Laconia School Board, chairman of the budget and personnel committee, said new salary costs from pending teacher negotiations were not included in $1 million in additional expenses facing the school district next year.
Persson, when asked how much teacher raises could add to the budget, said that won't be known until the school board negotiates with the teachers union.
"Our teachers are so far behind at this point in time compared with other districts," he said. "Many of our teachers, actually over 100 of our teachers, are over four years behind on their steps."
School districts that offer the most competitive teacher salaries include Inter-Lakes in Meredith and Gilford, although much depends on how long a teacher has been on the job.
In Inter-Lakes, entry-level teachers with a bachelor's degree earned $38,928 this past school year. An entry-level teacher with a master's degree earned $49,033. In the eight categories contained in the Gilford salary comparison — bachelor's degree holders and master's degree holders at entry level, five, 10 and 15 years in the district, respectively — Inter-Lakes offered the highest salaries in six out of eight categories.
Mary Moriarty, superintendent of the Inter-Lakes School District based in Meredith, noted that the teachers' contract was passed at the annual school district meeting in March. The three-year agreement with teachers carries a cumulative cost of $1,023,737.
The Inter‐Lakes Education Association collective bargaining agreement included increases in salaries and benefits of $320,073 in 2017‐2018; $350,525 in 2018‐2019; and $353,139 in 2019‐2020.
Teachers have agreed to increase their cost share for health insurance by one percent in the first year, and 1.5 percent in both the second and third years, according to school board deliberations. The change in prescription drug plans coupled with the added premium contributions was estimated to save the district about $137,000 over the life of the contract, the school board noted.
In Gilford, health insurance was expected to increase by a guaranteed maximum of 14.4 percent, or $365,288 next year, a number built into the operating budget. Despite this sticker shock, which led to backlash by the Gilford Budget Committee, voters approved the school district operating budget of $26,019,631 and a teachers' contract with increases of $268,198 in the first year; $268,198 in the second year; and $245,392 in the third year.
Forst, the Budget Committee member in Gilmanton, said, "I think it's all partially what a district can afford." Different districts have different "budget capabilities," he noted.
Gilmanton teachers often are pitted against peers in property tax-heavy lakefront communities, Forst said.
"They tend to look to the Lakes Region, which is a wealthier area of communities then if they looked southeast," he said. "There are other school districts that we never get compared with."
Tothill agreed, "It really depends on what your town has for resources. If you're a city like Laconia or a town like Meredith and you have all that lakefront property, it's hard to compare yourself to that because you're not comparing apples to apples."
Gilford, she said, hewed toward the top in teacher pay, "but they're funding their school on more than property," Tothill said. "They have all those businesses, and they have all those Lake Winnipesaukee homes. ... They have all those summer homes (whose owners) pay taxes but don't burden the schools."
Laconia is an outlier in this discussion because of the city's tax cap. The tax cap is a controversial mechanism which limits the annual increase in spending as funded by property taxes based on the rate of inflation and the value of new construction.
Persson, who heads the school district's budget and personnel committee, told the City Council last June that local teachers have not received pay raises in three of the last nine years.
"I knew from prior staff resignations that Laconia's salaries weren't competitive with other districts, but my jaw dropped when I compared Laconia's teacher pay to those of Gilford, Inter-Lakes and Concord," he said.