WILKES-BARRE — The Wilkes-Barre Area School Board on Monday night voted 5-1 in favor of a new four-year teachers contract that is expected to save the district $1 million per year through increased insurance co-pays for participants, officials said.
Monday’s meeting also featured an address to the board by local NAACP leader Ron Felton on the need for more minority teachers in the increasingly diverse district.
The new contract also will see teachers receive a pay increase of $1,000 per step, or pay grade, although officials could not immediately say how much that will cost the district.
“I thought it was absolutely wonderful, I’m very happy,” union president Jeff Ney said, praising the board for its openness during the negotiating process.
Ney said union members viewed increased co-pays as “an even trade” for the salary increase, and a move that would help save the district money.
While $1,000 per step sounds like a lot, Wilkes-Barre Area is unusual in that it has “banded steps,” meaning the salary stays the same for several years before the next raise. Most districts give smaller raises each year. Wilkes-Barre Area’s contract has 15 steps, but raises only occur on steps two, five, 10 and 15. In between those years, salaries are unchanged unless the teacher advances in the “column” part of the pay matrix, which increases salary based on education beyond a bachelor’s degree up to a doctorate.
Solicitor Ray Wendolowski said the pay raise coupled with the health insurance savings add up to a substantial net savings for the district. The contract also clarified language regarding health care coverage for retirees, making it clearer that the district will not cover insurance once a retiree is eligible for Medicare at age 65.
And the new contract added language that makes it easier for the district to test teachers for illegal drug use if there is a reasonable suspicion, Wendolowski said.
Board member Lynn Evans had to leave due to an emergency call and was not present for the vote, Wendolowski said, while members James Susek and Phillip Latinski were not present. Of the voting members, only Maryanne Toole voted against.
Ney said the delay in signing is a logistical question, and that the deal should be completed on Wednesday, once all the necessary parties can sit down together in the same room. The pact will be retroactive to Sept. 1, he said.
In other action Monday:
• Citing publicly-available statistics, Felton told the board and the public that while minority students — including blacks, Hispanics, Asians and mixed-race youth — make up 45 percent of the district’s population, at 3,100 pupils, there are only six minority teachers in the district, and none of them is a man.
Felton and other members of the NAACP met with district officials earlier in the day to discuss strategies to increase the ranks of minority teachers, and Felton said he was optimistic about their commitment to hold regular talks on the issue. He also said his concern was about providing role models who can help minority students peform better, not merely boosting numbers.
“I don’t want an unqualified minority teacher teaching my child any more than I would want an unqualified white teacher teaching my child,” Felton said.
Superintendent Bernard Prevuznak said he was struck by Felton’s message, including the realization that Wilkes-Barre Area students can go through 12 years of school without coming into contact with a minority teacher.
“I pledge my support to you, sir,” Prevuznak said, adding that he felt the earlier meeting was productive.
• The board heard from families concerned with two different transportation issues they felt were not being adequately addressed. Gail Nasser said one elementary bus run has consistently been using vehicles too small for the number of students on the route, including a 64-passenger vehicle for 75 students. Byron and Tina Dixon, meanwhile, said their 12-year-old daughter, who travels from North Main Street to Meyers High School for special education, is being forced to stand at a dangerous intersection when students from another school are allowed to board at a safer corner nearby.
Prevuznak said he would seek answers and work with both families.