After 16 months of negotiation, the Lower Merion School District and the Lower Merion Education Association came to an agreement on a new professional and support staff contracts on Monday, Sept. 13.
The new two-year deal calls for a 1.2 percent increase applied to scale for 2010-11, along with an agreement for district staff to contribute 1 percent of their salaries toward healthcare costs. The contractual healthcare contributions are a first for the district.
District salaries are guided by two types of increases, cost of living and regularly scheduled pay raises based on level of education and years of service in the district. The latter of the two pay increases will continue as scheduled, and the 1.2 percent increase in the new contracts will be applied evenly to all contracts in the district. For employees at the top rung of the district's salary guide, the pay raise will nearly wash out with the contractual givebacks for health care.
"This is the one of the most fiscally conservative contracts in school history," Lower Merion School District Superintendent Chris McGinley said when introducing the agreement at a special school board meeting Monday night.
The second year of the contract calls for a 1.4 percent cost of living increase applied to scale and healthcare contributions equal to 1.3 percent of salaries.
"There is language in this contract that will enhance Lower Merion's position as a leader in education," said Chris Santa Maria, President of the Lower Merion Education Association and a Harriton High School teacher. Santa Maria said that due to current economic conditions, a short-term contract made sense for the district, but it is not the ideal answer.
"(In the future), to help us maintain our level of education, more attention must be paid to mutual benefits of a longer commitment," Santa Maria said. "I look forward to making that argument again, but in a better economy."
McGinley said that the contract fits well within the budgeted amount for the 2010-11 school year, and he expects that it will fall within an acceptable range for the following budget as well. The 2011-12 school budget remains in flux due to unknowns in both revenue (based on property taxes tied to home values, which were hit in the economic downturn of the past year) and from Pennsylvania's Act 1 tax increase limits, which have not been set at this time.
The Lower Merion school board members were unanimously in favor of the agreed upon contract and voted 8-0 with one abstention in favor of ratifying the deal.
"In terms of the health care contributions, we have not gotten that before, and I think it's the right step for everybody," board member Jerry Novick said. "I think that netting out the increase on the top of the scale and the health care savings is appropriate for these times."
Board member Melissa Gilbert also had praise for the agreement, saying that many of the district's employees are at the top of the salary scale, and are therefore taking close to a pay freeze for 2010.
"I think the fact that we are voting on a contract tonight is a credit to our administrators, " Board member Susan Guthrie said. On the contract, Guthrie said "It moves the district down the road to where it needs to be."
About 60 other districts in Pennsylvania started 2010 without contracts in place for their employees, according to Santa Maria, a situation that both the union and the school district wanted to avoid prolonging.
"A good contract is based on compromise and mutual respect," said Board President David Ebby. "The relationship between the two Chris's (McGinley and Santa Maria) is based on mutual respect and that benefits the district and the students." Ebby also supported the contract, agreeing with McGinley's assessment of its fiscally conservative nature.
The meeting was attended by a light gathering of members of the public, and only one person spoke during the public comment section of the meeting, asking about the impact of the new contract on current and future budgets.