Negotiations over Amphithe-ater Public Schools pay-and-benefit packages ended speedily this year, with a boon unprecedented in recent years - a 7 percent raise for everyone.
The district's governing board approved, at its regular meeting April 13, a package that gives all employees a 5 percent raise and advances them one step on their salary schedules, which amounts to an additional 2 percent in pay.
"This is the largest overall increase that any of us can remember in recent years," said John Lewandowski, union president of the Amphitheater Education Association. "Even when we had our red shirts and marched five years ago, we got 5 (percent)."
In addition, teachers will have an extra paid planning day before school begins, and eligible employees will have the option of selecting health insurance that is free to them, because its premium falls below the district's $200-a-month contribution level. Also, employees in hard-to-fill positions will receive a stipend of $2,000 to make the district more competitive.
In recent years, negotiations have ended more than a month later than this year - usually sometime in May.
Lewandowski credits the speedy work and the pleasing results to a new pre-negotiations method, in which he and Superintendent Vicki Balentine spent a year looking into nooks and crannies of the district's budget, trying to find usable money.
"We started official negotiations only three weeks ago, but we did all of our homework prior to that," Lewandowski said.
Much of the district's additional money this year - an estimated $1 million - came from a phaseout of its costly Early Retirement Program, said Constance Cigliani, the district's chief financial officer. Another estimated $1 million was freed up by the district's discovery that its past health insurance carrier was over-charging.
About $400,000 was freed up because the district's newest high school, Ironwood Ridge, is up and running, now, with its first batch of seniors this year, Cigliana said. Also, the district's student population has grown, and the district receives about $3,000 per student from the state
Balentine and Lewandowski determined all of this before negotiations started.
"We're trying to show the district and the association working together," Lewandowski said. "We wanted to go into the negotiations and have all that behind us."
Another change, this year, was that teaching and non-teaching employees, both under the auspices of the Amphitheater Education Association, met at the negotiation table together. In the past, the two groups have had separate negotiation sessions, and then have had to confer with each other to see how, for example, a bus driver's lowered health insurance costs would affect a teacher's salary.
The old way, "one group would have to meet with the administration, come back to the executive board and tell us what's going on, and then the other group would do that," Lewandowski said. "This has streamlined the process. You're not going back and forth, because everyone's right there in the room."
Associate Superintendent Todd Jaeger said he was pleased with the new process.
"I think it was a great opportunity for everyone to hear one another's concerns and needs," he said. "Everyone got to deal with the big picture, and ultimately we got a very good result for employees and for the district."
In the past, Amphitheater pay-and-benefit package negotiations have not gone so smoothly.
"If you look at the history of the district over the last five years, quite honestly the relationship between the district and employees deteriorated up until two years ago," Lewandowski said. "Recently Dr. Balentine and I have worked very hard with our respective groups to make things better, and we're at a point now where that's working well."
As recently as 2002, the pay-and-benefit package negotiations were contentious. That year, the school board voted for a modest pay raise of 2 percent, after the union rejected that offer from the district. Each side accused the other of not being willing to compromise.
Last year, employees received a raise of 3 percent plus one step on their salary schedules, which amounted to an additional 2 percent in pay, but much of that was eaten up by employees' payout for the Early Retirement Program.
Though most of the blame was put on state cuts in education funding, some employees still cast a distrustful eye on the governing board, questioning whether the district was in as dire financial straights as was claimed.
"There are still people who will remember the old days, who will say, 'How can you get along together? They're on the other side,'" Lewandowski said. "I have to say, 'No, we're all in this together.'"
This year's raises and perks left little room for dissatisfaction.
This package still awaits ratification from the Amphitheater Education Association, but Lewandowski said it has the association's full support.
"We're excited about the 7.1 total," Lewandowski said. "There's no increase in state retirement this year, so 7.1 is going to be 7.1."