Nov. 30—The Keene Board of Education and Keene Education Association have reached an agreement on a new, four-year contract for voters to consider in March, the district and union announced jointly this week.
Bill Gillard, KEA president, said the biggest change from the current contract, aside from slight language adjustments, is an improved pay scale for current and future teachers. This is Gillard's third time through negotiations and said this contract has the best pay structure for teachers he's ever experienced.
"I would say this is the most equitable contract in terms of every employee getting a sizable increase to their compensation," said Gillard, a Keene High School math teacher.
The contract will cover about 318 employees, which includes teachers and other staff such as librarians and school counselors, Gillard said.
He added that the cost to taxpayers under the new contract would increase 5.22 percent in the first year, 2.58 percent in the second, 2.99 percent in the third and 2.23 percent in the final year. Salaries and benefits typically constitute the majority of school budgets, including the Keene School District's current $71.1 million operating budget that voters approved in March.
Both the union and the school board have ratified the new contract, Gillard said, but he contended the document is not available to the public because negotiations are secret, similar to non-public sessions at a school board meeting. The Sentinel has submitted a public records request to the district for a copy of the new contract agreement.
The pay raises are part of the union and district's joint goal of hiring more teachers to help fill a high number of open positions and offer more competitive wages compared to surrounding districts, Gillard said.
There are 12 teach positions open within the Keene School District, according to Nancy Deutsch, director of human resources of SAU 29.
The development of the new pay structure, Gillard said, involved the board and the union spending a lot of time dissecting the current scale in Keene and looking at competing school districts in the area. Keene focused specifically on districts in Claremont, Winchester, Peterborough and Hillsboro.
Districts tend to try and retain teachers by addressing issues such as average wages, starting and highest attainable salaries and how many steps it takes for teachers to get to the top of the pay scale, according to Gillard.
Every year teachers gain experience, they move up a space in the salary structure. Their position in the salary structure grid also depends on the amount of education they've received. The pay scale in the current KEA contract, which expires in June 2023, is a series of increases over 30 steps, which equals a 30-year career. The new contract calls for 24 steps, Gillard said.
There are four different salary lanes to follow those 24 steps, depending on the amount of education a teacher has. The four different lanes are for educators with a bachelor's degree, bachelor's plus 15 graduate credits, master's degree and master's degree plus 30 graduate credits.
Gillard said the union pushed for this change with the aim of making teachers feel more valued. Due to the condensed pay scale, teachers will be able to reach the top of it sooner. Once at the top, pay increases are based on the cost of living increases.
Gillard said the school board and the KEA choose to create a four year contract because it helps promote stability in schools, as opposed to shorter ones. This will be the fourth cycle in a row the Keene district has gone with a four-year contract, according to Gillard. Voters approved the current contract in March 2019, at which time the union had been working without a contract for over a year, after negotiations between the KEA and the district stalled in January 2018.
Usually the two entities don't begin negotiating a new contract until September of the final year, Gillard said, but he pushed for the process to begin in July.
Typically the new contract needs to be ratified by both parties by Thanksgiving or Christmas vacation, Gillard said, because a the district prepares its budget throughout December before presenting it to district residents in January.
"If you're trying to recruit teachers and fill positions, you want a salary structure that's competitive with the market," Gillard said. "I made the pitch [to the board] saying 'We're not against each other, there's never been a greater alignment because you're fighting to hire all these teachers and there's less and less teachers available.'"
George Downing, chairman of the Keene Board of Education, wrote in an email to The Sentinel he's proud of both the board and the union for sharing the same goals to invest more in teacher salaries. He also wrote that the board and the union identified common goals around recruitment, retention and balancing district needs with funding limitations.
"The previous contract was not competitive in either salary levels or structure, and limited the District's ability to maintain a full workforce," Downing wrote. "The proposed contract represents an investment in our most valued resource: our teachers. This new contract will provide the Keene School District with the tools they need to attract and retain the quality educators our students deserve."
Keene voters will weigh in on the contract at the polls on March 14, 2023. Polls will open 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Keene Recreation Center on Washington Street, where residents from all wards will vote, according to a news release from the district Monday.
This story has been updated to note that The Sentinel has submitted a public records request to the district for the new contract.
Jamie Browder can be reached at 352-1234 ext. 1427 or email@example.com