ITHACA, N.Y. — The Ithaca Teachers Association membership voted Thursday to ratify a six-year contract with the Ithaca City School District, finalizing a tentative agreement that was reached between the parties earlier this month. The contract includes a significant overall increase in teacher payroll, which will be split between teachers via alternating flat-rate and percentage increases in an attempt to improve teacher recruitment and retention.

Going into negotiations, union members argued low district pay created high turnover among teachers and made it difficult to attract top candidates. ITA president Adam Piasecki said Friday that while the new contract will not immediately bring salaries in line with higher paying districts like Lansing and Vestal, it is a step forward for Ithaca teachers.

“It’s not going to completely close the gap in the next year or even the next six years, but we made sure the membership knew this was the best we could get at this time,” Piasecki said.

Under the new six-year contract, teachers will receive flat-rate pay increases in years one, three and five and percentage increases in years two, four and six. The alternating increases are designed to increase base salaries for new teachers to facilitate recruitment, while ensuring experienced teachers see gains that encourage retention.

In the 2019-20 school year, all current teachers’ salaries will go up by $2,595, according to Piasecki. Base pay for new teachers entering with no experience will also increase from about $42,500 to about $44,500.

The following school year, salaries will increase by 4%, meaning experienced teachers will see larger bumps in pay than new teachers. The cycle will repeat through the end of the contract, with slight rate increases each year.

In total, the amount of funds allocated to teacher pay will increase by 27%. In a press release from the Ithaca City School District announcing that a tentative agreement was reached with the ITA on June 6, district representatives said the payroll expansion was an aggressive move to keep Ithaca’s compensation package competitive.

Outgoing Board of Education member Brad Grainger said, “The Board of Education recognizes the competitive market for top educators requires a competitive compensation package. …This contract will increase payroll 27% over six years. While aggressive, it is needed to assure continued recruitment of the best educators in New York. The budget will be stretched to meet these contracts, but Ithaca residents have indicated support for our teaching professionals.”

Apart from pay increases, the contract also includes a new vision plan and increased dental coverage, as well as updated stipends for teachers who perform extra duties, Piasecki said. Stipends will increase for teachers who supervise extracurricular activities or who have certifications as school psychologists or licensed clinical social workers.

According to the district, health insurance benefits will also be expanded and the number of tuition-free slots for the kids of teachers who commute from outside the district will increase.

A few items on the ITA’s wishlist, including negotiating a maximum student-to-teacher ratio and hiring additional arts and music instructors, were not included in the final contract. Piasecki said he hopes to make progress on articles that were not included in the contract over the next six years.

William Asklar, an English teacher at Ithaca High School, previously spoke out about how ICSD was losing teachers to better-paying districts. Thursday, he said the new contract is “baby steps in the right direction.”

“Although the pay increases are better than we have seen in the past, in six years, when the contract is up, teacher salaries will still be among the lowest in the state.  A step system for educator salaries would fix that,” Asklar said.

Data compiled by the Rockefeller Institute of Government shows that ICSD’s median teacher pay of about $53,000 is a bit below the median in the Finger Lakes region, which has the lowest median pay in the state. Half of Finger Lakes region teachers make less than $56,000; in the state’s highest-paid region, Long Island, median pay is about $111,000.

Referencing the ITA contract and a recently negotiated contract with the paraprofessionals’ bargaining unit, Superintendent Luvelle Brown said in a statement, “The collaborative conversations with the leadership of our two largest bargaining units have been fruitful and resulted in agreements that are consistent with our school district’s compensation strategy. The length and pay increases associated with these new contracts are noteworthy.”

Robert Van Keuren, chief negotiator for ICSD, said flat-rate raises mean a larger percentage of payroll increases will go toward teachers at the bottom of the pay scale, encouraging newer teachers to join and stay in the district. “Both the ITA and district were in agreement that these flat rate increases will help the district retain current staff and remain competitive in the market for newer teachers,” Van Keuren said.

Asklar said he is hopeful that ITA leadership will build on the gains of the contract during the next round of negotiations. “I am pleased with the efforts of our negotiations team, and hopeful that when this contract expires, we will continue to make progress to ensure that our teacher salaries and benefits are competitive with other school districts in the state, and that we can attract and retain the very best teaching candidates.  The people of Ithaca deserve that.”

Devon Magliozzi

Devon Magliozzi is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at dmagliozzi@ithacavoice.com or 607-391-0328.