The Fort Wayne Community Schools teachers union is accusing the administration of gutting its contract two years before the move is legally necessary.
During a news conference Thursday, union officials said negotiations between the district and the union had hit an impasse. For the first time in years, they said, the union had requested a mediator from the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board to resolve a dispute.
Union leaders said talks broke down over changes to the contract governing working conditions, not discussions surrounding wages or benefits.
All parts of the contract related to working conditions was removed from the district's proposal, they said, giving teachers no freedom to expel unruly children from their classrooms, have class-size limits, set working hours and have other controls over their professional lives. While their original contract was 155 pages, they said, the district is proposing a contract that is only 20 pages long.
In a statement, Superintendent Wendy Robinson said the district had offered a contract that went beyond the new requirements under state law. If a contract wasn't agreed to by June 30, she said, changes in state law that prohibit deficit financing could result in less money being available for teachers.
Robinson has scheduled a news conference at 1:30 p.m. today to discuss the impasse.
The district and teachers union will need to reach a contract agreement before June 30 for teachers to lock in contract provisions over everything but teacher evaluations. If they reach a contract before the date, it can last only two years.
After June 30, and after the two-year exception window has passed, teacher contracts will be limited to wages and benefits. In cases of an impasse, school boards will have the power to move forward with the last best offer on the table.
Steve Brace, executive director of the Fort Wayne Education Association, said teachers felt betrayed by the district – particularly in light of an April news conference in which the school board approved a resolution affirming teachers' collective bargaining rights.
"Now that push has come to shove and they have an opportunity to back that resolution, they've turned their backs on teachers," he said.
Brace and union President Al Jacquay emphasized that the union's rejection of the district's proposal had nothing to do with money.
The district has proposed a 1 percent pay increase with no automatic pay increases and increases to health insurance premiums, Brace said.
"We understand the money; we're not blind," Brace said. "This is about teachers and their ability to do their job. This is about dignity and respect."
According to the district, the union's proposal kept the automatic pay increases intact, even though there were no funds available.
"We obviously want to continue to have a relationship with our teachers because they are central to what we are trying to get done, but we also have to be fiscally responsible," Robinson said. "It's unfortunate that when they asked us to come to the table tonight, they came prepared with a process to head to impasse."
Union leaders said they were surprised by the district's reaction, particularly in light of their positive relationship and the compromises teachers had made during the Leading Educational Achievement with Distinction process, during which union officials agreed to staff buildings without regard to seniority and with teachers outside of the district.
"We're doing what no other district has done," Brace said. "We've shown that we're not averse to change. We've demonstrated time and time again that we're enthusiastic about working together."
During a meeting last week to discuss the situation, Jacquay said teachers felt insulted, angry and demoralized.
"In the past, teachers felt like they were part of a winning team; now they feel like they're being deserted," Jacquay said.
According to Brace, the union had a meeting May 26 in which teachers told the union to go back to the district in search of compromise. If an agreement couldn't be reached, they voted to move forward with a mediator.
Brace said that mediation wasn't binding and said it was unclear whether having a mediator would help both parties to reach an agreement.
Nevertheless, he said, the union wanted to try all options before the June 30 deadline came and went.
Robinson said the district wasn't confident a mediator could be available by July 1.
Brace said teachers recognized that change was coming. But their hope, he said, was that the district and teachers could take the next two years to develop processes that would address many of the issues previously tackled by union contracts.
"We don't have to lose (the contract) for two years," Brace said. "We can spend the next two years working out the details."