BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — Contract negotiations that dragged on for almost two years between the city and schoolteachers finally concluded last night.
The School Committee unanimously approved a three-year collective bargaining agreement that was ratified earlier this month by the Salem Teachers Union, which represents about 500 public school teachers.
It includes nearly a 6 percent pay hike over the life of the contract, which is similar to raises given to other city unions.
However, it does not address what Mayor Kim Driscoll had identified as a key contract goal: extending the teachers’ work day by about an hour to help turn around what the state has designated an “underperforming” school district.
“It definitely still is a goal and key objective,” Driscoll said of the longer day. “I think we (now) want to approach it in a targeted and strategic way.”
After failing to resolve the issue through talks, school officials hope to extend or change schedules at one or two schools next school year.
The mayor conceded that contract talks may not be the best way to add more time to the school day, and that it may be better to work out solutions school by school.
While failing to reach an agreement, a top union official hinted that the idea is not necessarily dead.
“We did talk about it a lot ...” said Joyce Harrington, president of the Salem Teachers Union. “We want to make sure it’s well-planned, and we want students and staff to be successful. ... It may, I’m sure, be a topic that we will revisit.”
The teacher contract talks were not only long, but complex. The two sides, for example, had to hammer out a separate agreement for Bentley Elementary School, which the state designated a Level 4 school in 2011 based, in part, on low scores in statewide tests.
The school day at Bentley was extended by about an hour this school year for students. Teachers work staggered schedules, but not longer school days.
There are also separate agreements for the new Salem Community Charter School and Carlton Elementary School, one of the state’s “innovation schools.”
The teachers’ contract, just like deals with police and firefighters, chips away at sick-leave buyback, a long-standing and controversial provision allowing retiring city workers to get paid for unused sick days.
Some of those checks are for tens of thousands of dollars. This fiscal year alone, the city will pay out about $700,000, officials said.
Under this pact, new teachers will not be eligible for those large checks at retirement and will be limited to smaller annual payouts at lower rates.
The agreement also achieves additional savings by adding more pay steps to the teachers’ contract, Driscoll said.
As for teacher salaries, the deal calls for $800 stipends in the first year and 2 percent salary increases the next two years.
“I think it’s a fair contract, under the circumstances,” Harrington said.
Negotiations began in the spring of 2011 and ended in mediation last fall. The three-year contract expires next year.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.