SARANAC LAKE - The Saranac Lake Central School District Board of Education has approved a new three-year contract with the union representing its nearly 200 teachers and teaching assistants.
The deal with the Saranac Lake Teachers Association, which is retroactive to July 1 of this year, will require the union's members to make higher contributions toward their health insurance premiums in return for raises of roughly 3 percent each year of the agreement. The union also agreed to give its members the option of switching to a different health insurance plan, one that would be less expensive for the school district.
"I think it was a fair agreement, and I think both sides made some serious concessions that were not easy to make," Superintendent Gerald Goldman told the Enterprise Monday at an impromptu press conference at the high school. "What we were looking for was some stability going forward, and I think we got that."
Saranac Lake school officials and members of the Saranac Lake Teachers Association are all smiles in the high school board room Monday after announcing an agreement on a new contract for the school district’s teachers and teaching assistants. From left are Assistant Superintendent for Business Dan Bower, SLTA Vice President Don Carlisto, Superintendent Gerald Goldman, school board Vice President Katie Fischer and SLTA President Melissa DeVit.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
"The new agreement reflects an investment in teaching by the district that will help to maintain the high quality schools that we have in this community," SLTA Vice President Don Carlisto said, reading from a prepared statement. "It further demonstrates the SLTA's willingness to partner with the district on ways to save money and control costs."
Health insurance costs were the biggest sticking point in the negotiations, which began in the spring and resulted in an impasse being declared in September. A mediator from the state Public Employment Relations Board was brought in and helped to broker the deal.
The new agreement includes incentives for teachers to switch from their current health insurance plan, Classic Blue from Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, to a PPO-J plan, also from Excellus, that's less expensive to the district.
"If you want to remain with Classic Blue you're going to pay a higher contribution than if you switch to PPO-J," said Dan Bower, the district's assistant superintendent for business.
For example, SLTA members who stay with the same health insurance would see their family plan contributions double from $750 to $1,500 in the first year of the deal. Individual plan contributions would also double, from $300 to $600. In the second and third years, teachers would contribute based on a percentage, 8 and 10 percent, respectively.
Contributions for SLTA members who switch to the cheaper insurance coverage would be less: $748 for a family plan and $350 for an individual. They would also pay percentage contributions in the second and third years of the agreement, 5 and 7 percent, respectively.
Under the new contract, the total amount teachers will chip in toward their health insurance this school year is $176,325, an increase of $79,950 over what the union's members had been paying.
The switch to percentage-based contributions in the second and third years of the contract is one of the key points of the deal. District officials pushed for it as they believe having employees pay a percentage is a more fair way to keep pace with the rising cost of employee benefits.
Most of the union's members will receive average salary hikes of 2.95 percent in the first year and 3.15 percent in the second year. In the third year, most teachers would get average salary hikes of 3.41 percent, and teaching assistants would get 3.71 percent increases. Union officials noted, however, that several of their longest-serving members' take-home pay will actually decrease in the first year, by as much as 1.2 percent, because they're paying higher health insurance contributions.
When you factor in what school officials are giving up in salary increases, the agreement saves the district $36,387 in the current school year, although that doesn't include any savings from teachers switching to the cheaper health plan. If 20 percent of the SLTA's membership switches to PPO-J, the savings will increase to $41,106.
Goldman said the district won't see the full advantage of the cheaper health coverage until the following year. He said premium increases for the PPO-J plan, going forward, will be much flatter than increases for the current Classic Blue plan.
The SLTA is working with Bower to begin educating its members on the differences between the two health insurance plans. Among other things, the current plan includes a cap on maximum out-of-pocket expenses; there's no cap under PPO-J.
"I think it's the unknownness of a PPO-J," said SLTA President Melissa DeVit. "It's not something that other people regionally have, and it's going to take getting people to understand the benefits."
The contract was ratified Friday by a 125-5 vote of the union's membership. The SLTA represents 198 teachers and teaching assistants.
Carlisto said SLTA members understood that "these are difficult fiscal times.
"People understood there were some changes to the way that teacher benefits were offered that were going to have to happen," he said. "We sought regional comparability here. We know what happened in neighboring districts, and we were very much in line with what other districts and their associations were able to come to."
School Board Vice President Katie Fischer said the agreement was fair for both sides.
"I think the teachers' union showed leadership to the community and the taxpayers by going above and beyond what neighboring districts have done," she said.
The school board approved the agreement in a 4-0 unanimous vote at a special meeting Monday morning. Three members of the board weren't present for the vote but had been made aware of the contract's terms, Goldman said.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or email@example.com.