On Monday, April 19, 2021 the Sharon City School District's Board of Education voted 7-2 to reject the Report of the Fact-Finder regarding the ongoing contract negotiations with the Sharon Teacher's Association (STA). While the District wishes to bring the negotiations with the STA to a fair conclusion, it will not do so at the expense of the District's long-term financial future nor by creating a negative environment for the District's taxpayers and community. While we are appreciative of the hard work and sacrifices of its teachers during this difficult year, the District is also mindful that the entire City has suffered significantly during the past thirteen months, and that we must be responsible in the long-term financial commitments that it makes when those commitments will fall to the City’s residents to fund.
The Sharon City School District was hopeful that the Fact-Finding process would help the parties to reach a reasonable and responsible settlement, but that did not happen. The District presented significant data and support for its positions which the public is now free to review at its convenience on our website (www.sharonsd.org, EXPLORE > Negotiations > Click the Down Arrow). At the close of the Fact-Finding hearing, the District’s and STA’s chief negotiator met with the Fact-Finder and the three of them agreed that if the Report could be completed by the Fact-Finder five days before its March 31 due date the parties would have an opportunity to confer and discuss whether it might be able to be fashioned into a Report which both parties could support. However, the Fact-Finder did not meet that deadline and, in fact, started his Report the day it was due. As any teacher would attest, you can’t do your best work if you start your term paper the day that it’s due, and as a result, there are factual errors in the Report and a lack of analysis in the Report. The parties deserved better from the process.
The current negotiations began shortly before the pandemic changed our world in March of 2020. At that time, the District rightfully and necessarily placed negotiations on hold while we worked to figure out how to complete the 2019-2020 school year. The District's Superintendent and Chief Negotiator met in-person with the STA's President and PSEA representative on December 21, 2019 to discuss the difficulty of negotiating in the midst of the uncertainty caused by the COVID pandemic. It was decided to move forward with the discussions. Each side presented initial proposals with the STA’s proposal including a 4% increase in salaries, each year for five years (the projected cost of which would be $475,000 per year or 5.3% annually). The union also offered no changes to health care provisions or premium shares for the five year life of the contract. In addition, the Association’s proposal included 28 changes to procedure or language from the existing contract. Conversely, the Board’s initial proposal included five language items, a move to a Qualified High Deductible health care plan and a salary increase of approximately 1% per year for three years.
The District’s proposal was based on the fact that the past three years, our audits have shown a steady decline in the District’s finances. For the most recent completed school year, 2019-2020, the District finished the year with a $2,358,101 deficit. This was the third year out of the last four in which the District finished with a deficit. When the District finishes the year with a deficit, it must cover that deficit by using reserves from its fund balance. At the end of the 2016-2017 school year, the District’s fund balance was $11,368,211. At the end of the 2019-2020 school year, the fund balance was down by nearly five million dollars, to $6,656,928. At the current rate, the District will have a negative fund balance in three years. There is no way to build back up the fund balance once it is depleted except by reducing costs or raising taxes, and the District does not believe that its residents can bear significant tax increases.
As always in these types of negotiations, the most significant issues in dispute are salary and health care. Here, however, the District has agreed to the STA’s salary proposal for three out of the four years of the proposed contract, with the exception being only the present 2020-2021 year, in which the District continues to propose that the parties agree to the freeze that the STA’s leadership stated they would consider back in mid-2020. However, the District maintains that these raises can only be paid if the STA agrees to change the health care plan to a different plan, a Qualified High Deductible Plan (QHDHP). Ironically, the STA was the party that originally proposed the District consider this Plan in order to reduce costs. The District has provided the STA with information showing that at the proposed contribution levels, the average STA member will not pay more for health care under the new Plan. Unfortunately, the STA will no longer negotiate over the Plan even though the District has made clear that the parties agreeing to a health care change is the only way the District can finance the salary increases the STA is seeking.
The District and STA have agreed to return to the bargaining table in May and the District is hopeful that the matter can be resolved without any significant further delay, but the stakes for the District, the community, its taxpayers, students and parents are too high to agree to a contract the District can’t afford.