The Cheltenham school board has approved a new three-year contract with its teachers union that grants raises each year — but with a coronavirus-induced caveat that some say could become more common for school districts in the wake of the pandemic.
If the Montgomery County district’s financial situation worsens, it will be able to reopen the contract — which will cost $3.1 million over three years — under provisions agreed to by the union and approved by the board this week.
Among the circumstances that would trigger a reopening of the contract: if the district’s projected tax collection rate falls by more than 3% from the year before, or if its primary source of state aid shrinks by $300,000. The district’s budget for next year is about $122 million.
“I don’t believe there is a more comprehensive reopener provision in any Commonwealth of Pennsylvania collective bargaining agreement,” said Jeff Sultanik, a lawyer who represents school districts, including Cheltenham, in contract negotiations.
As the pandemic upends the economy, jeopardizing school budgets, Sultanik said he expected other districts to pursue similar agreements. “Otherwise, negotiating more than a one-year contract becomes very difficult," he said.
The agreement grants raises in the first, second, and third years, of 2%, 2.94%, and 2.58%, retroactive to July 1, 2019. But it also specifies that if the district’s financial situation deteriorates, triggering the reopening, the district and union will have 45 days to renegotiate the salaries.
If they can’t agree, the issue will go to binding arbitration, with limitations to protect the district’s finances.
For the district, which had been negotiating with the union since January 2019, “we knew the ground had shifted dramatically" when the coronavirus hit, said Joel Fishbein, the school board vice president. He and President Julie Haywood credited the union with “incredible flexibility” in reaching an agreement.
The union represents about 400 teachers. Salaries for this school year start at $45,916 to $67,585 depending on the teacher’s education and certification level, and top out at $85,157 to $117,281.
“This was a long process, but we’re glad we were able to reach an agreement that lets the parties work together cooperatively moving forward,” including if provisions reopening the contract kick in, said Amy Rosenberger, a lawyer for the union.
The agreement also includes changes to health care insurance that save the district money, and language allowing for flexible scheduling at middle and high schools — changes that were being discussed before the pandemic, and that wouldn’t go into effect until the 2021-22 school year, Haywood said.