The good, the bad, and the ugly of Iowa’s new collective bargaining law-Part III

Former teacher and retired associate executive director of the Iowa State Education Association Randy Richardson wraps up his review of teacher contract negotiations under Iowa’s new collective bargaining law. -promoted by desmoinesdem

In the first two parts of this series, we examined how Republicans changed collective bargaining for public employees and the new law’s impact on Iowa teachers.

III. What Happens Next?

Most school districts have now reached agreement with their local education associations for 2017-18 and beyond. While most teachers have a pretty good idea of how their pay and benefits will be affected for next year, there are some “hidden” issues that are likely to impact them in the near future.

Many of the school districts/local associations who settled after the change in the law removed salary schedules from the collective bargaining agreement. For those of you not familiar with this concept, the salary schedule spells out how much teachers will be paid for each additional year of teaching experience and how much additional pay they can count on for seeking additional education.

Many young teachers use projections from the salary schedule to map out future earnings and to help project when they could afford to purchase their first home. The loss of the salary schedule now means that teachers are left to the whims of the state (will they fund schools) and to the local school districts (do they want to increase pay). Automatic pay increases based upon experience and education are a thing of the past. There is nothing to prevent school districts from awarding pay raises to some teachers and not others based upon whatever criteria they wish to use.

While most teachers in the state will see some increase in pay, it’s likely that some of that increase may be offset by increased contributions for health insurance. The new law says that districts must provide insurance to all public employees, but it doesn’t provide many details about how that will happen.

In the past insurance was a mandatory item of collective bargaining, and the local association and the school district bargained the level of benefits and contributions that the district and the employee would be required to make toward the cost of premiums. In many schools, health benefit committees were formed so that much of the research on plan design could be done prior to bargaining. Teachers worked cooperatively with school districts to find ways to keep costs down.

From 2006 until 2015, health insurance premium increases in Iowa averaged in single digits. While single digit increases sound good, it’s important to keep in mind that those increases still exceeded salary increases and increases in the cost of living index. In fact since 2005 the health care inflation rate has exceeded the Consumer Price Index (CPI) every year but one.

Historically, single digit insurance increases are relatively new. I found some old documents that show health insurance premiums increasing by over 20 percent in 2002-03, and I personally know of school districts that faced premium increases of 40 percent or more. Over the years school districts and their employees have found a variety of ways to keep costs down. Deductibles and co-pays have increased, and many schools are now experimenting with high deductible plans and health savings accounts.

For a number of years large school districts have been experimenting with self-funding their insurance since they have enough employees to spread the risk involved with such a product. Unfortunately we are now seeing more and more medium and small school districts attempt to do the same thing. While that may work in the short term, it will only take one catastrophic employee illness to cause premiums to sky rocket.

As insurance costs go up, we should expect that more school districts will pass along the costs of these increases to employees. In fact, we’re already beginning to see it happen. The Wapello School District just imposed changes to their health insurance plan that increases the employee contribution for family health insurance from the current $186.15 per month up to $330.45 per month. That’s an increase of $144.30 per month or $1731.60 annually coming out of the teacher’s pay. The district could do this because it is now illegal for teachers to bargain insurance benefits.

Other districts are also beginning to do this. North Scott increased employee contributions by $30/month. Starmont has now placed a cap on the district’s contribution to family health insurance. Teachers in the Union school district in northeast Iowa received a $925 annual increase in pay but will now have to pay an additional $30/month for single health insurance.

For years teachers have often taken a smaller increase in pay to help offset the additional cost of insurance. Now, under the new law, they will not only get the smaller increase in pay, but be at the district’s mercy when it comes to covering the increased costs of insurance. Keep in mind my scenario above and think about how this will work when insurance increases once again reach double digits.

When a similar collective bargaining law was passed in Wisconsin several years ago, some rapidly growing districts discovered that they actually benefited from some of the changes and could afford to keep teacher pay high and provide more liberal benefits to employees. Teachers in high need areas (special education, math and science) suddenly found that they could take their services to the highest bidder and essentially become free agents.

A similar thing is likely to happen in Iowa. There are many examples of neighboring school districts where one district settled prior to the change in the law and the other settled after the change. If I’m a teacher, would I rather work in a district with a contract that guarantees my rights or would I prefer to work in a district where the superintendent can change the conditions of my employment at any time? Of the 12 school districts in the Des Moines Metro area, 11 settled prior to the change in the law and kept permissive language in their collective bargaining agreements. The Des Moines school district alone hires as many as 150 new teachers per year. Many of those are now likely to come from surrounding districts where teachers lost many of their rights. This may very well result in larger school districts being able to choose the cream of the crop and smaller school districts being left with the rest.

There is still hope that these changes in collective bargaining may be short lived. The lawsuits filed by the largest public employee union AFSCME and by the Iowa State Education Association are still waiting to be heard, although any decision to strike down the law will likely result in an appeal. That’s why it will be so important to elect pro-education school board members this fall and to elect pro-education candidates (the real ones, not the ones who say they are) in 2018.

While the odds of taking both houses of the legislature and the governorship are small, it will be very important to restore at least one branch of state government to candidates who truly support public education.

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