Retirement benefit stalls talks

No contract for Amherst teachers

AMHERST – Teachers in the Amherst School District will be working without a contract for the second year in a row after their union and the School Board failed to reach an agreement on a new pact.

The two sides held an unsuc­cessful mediation session on Jan. 3.

After the School Dis­trict’s annual budget hearing last week, the board gave out a printed statement indicating that its proposal to change re­tirement payouts was a major sticking point.

"Retirement s e v e r a n c e , " which Amherst teachers receive along with their pensions under the New Hampshire Retirement System, re­sults in payments of about $80,000-$90,000 per teacher.

Teachers union repre­sentative Larry Ballard said last week the retire­ment severance seems high, but it helps make up for the fact that Am­herst doesn’t cover health insurance for teachers who leave before age 65, in contrast to teachers in Milford, Bedford and oth­er districts.

The board says the re­tirement payout meansthe district would be li­able for more than $10 million if every teacher retired at 65.

The payouts "restrict the number of teachers the district can afford to retire in any given year, thus inhibiting a natu­ral rate of attrition," ac­cording to the statement. Instead, the board had offered a retirement pack­age that kept the benefit for those close to retire­ment and shifted to a tax-sheltered annuity plan for the rest.

Most teachers at retire­ment would be better off with the annuity plan, the board contends, and such a plan would reduce the district’s liability by more than $6 million.

Ballard said it isn’t true that the retirement pay­out is keeping teachers from retiring.

"If they talk to teach­ers," he said, they would find it’s the lack of health insurance after retire­ment.

Another sticking point is health insurance pre­miums.

Durng negotiations, the board proposed plans that "would greatly reduce premiums" while increas­ing deductibles and co-payments for employees.

The day after the hear­ing, Ballard emailed a statement criticizing the board for "conducting ne­gotiations through press releases."

"Amherst PreK-8 teach­ers will now be working under an expired contract for a second consecutive year, a situation without precedent in five decades of collective bargaining between the AEA and Amherst School Board," he wrote.

The board says it tried to avoid that situation by offering a one-year con­tract that provides raises of $700.

The one-year contract would have hurt younger teachers, Ballard said, be­cause they wouldn’t have received step increases for two years and because Amherst pay would start to become uncompetitive with Milford schools.

The AEA covers 129 teachers in the district, which includes Clark- Wilkins School and Am­herst Middle School.

Negotiations are ex­pected to resume later in the spring.

The stalled negotiations were announced at the district’s public hearing on the budget on Jan. 11.

The proposed $25.4 mil­lion spending plan would have a tax rate impact of 55 cents per thousand dol­lars of assessed valuation.

Board Vice Chairman James Manning called it a "maintenance budget" that provides no new pro­grams and of which 76 percent goes toward staff salaries and benefits.

With more than a $1 million increase in non­discretionary spending, including hikes in retire­ment, special education and transportation ex­penses, Manning said "the only way to cut the budget is to lay people off. We’ve done a good job of match­ing staff and enrollment," which had declined over the last 10 years and is now stabilizing.

The budget reflects the elimination of three po­sitions, including a pre­school coordinator.

Because the default budget this year is less than the operating bud­get, if voters reject the budget, the tax impact of the default would be 67 cents. Board members said they intend to talk to attorneys and make a de­cision by April on wheth­er to change how they cal­culate the default amount.

The only other article on the warrant is for $50,000 to be added to a fund for educating chil­dren with disabilities.

From the audience, Margaret McCabe told the board it should get rid of all paraprofessionals, let parents volunteer in classrooms and have big­ger class sizes at the high school.

Mike Akillian said the board has to find ways to work with the teachers union to "bring their very rich compensation back in line."

The next step in the budget approval process is the Deliberative Ses­sion, which is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7, in the Souhegan High School theater.

Voting will take place Tuesday, March 14.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.