The Hays USD 489 school board and the collective bargaining unit of its teachers has reached an impasse in the 2019-20 contract negotiations.

It’s the second year in a row, and the third time in four years, the talks have stalled and brought in a federal mediator.

In a meeting Wednesday afternoon between the parties, school board president Mike Walker said repeatedly he believed it was time to bring in a third party to the talks, but the negotiating team for the Hays chapter of the Kansas National Education Association — with a crowd of teachers seated behind them that early on numbered about 50 — attempted to sway that decision for more than an hour.

Neither side would give in regarding their demands, however, in a meeting that at times had the district’s negotiating team admitting the room felt “unfriendly.”

The prevailing issue stalling the talks, representatives of both sides later told The Hays Daily News, is health insurance and wages.

In 2017, the school board voted to switch the district’s health insurance provider from a state plan administered by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas to Aetna, anticipating increasing costs through the state plan.

The district is wanting to establish the defined contribution to insurance premiums for 2021 at this time, but Hays NEA president Kim Schneweis said the teachers don’t want to discuss that this year.

Walker said the district has compared what it contributes on premiums for health insurance plans with other districts and found USD 489 pays much more.

“We pay on average about 83% of the proportion of the premium. Most districts that we’ve looked at offer ranges between 55 to 65” percent, he said.

“Somehow over the years, things have gotten a bit out of whack,” Walker said.

Insurance premiums — and consequently the employer’s contribution — are often unknowns, Walker said, and that makes it difficult for the board to plan future money use.

“We don’t know what we’re going to spend on insurance. Therefore, we don’t know how much money we can set aside for books, or computers or facility improvements,” he said.

The teachers, Schneweis said, want to focus on wage increases now, in part because the switch to Aetna has increased their out-of-pocket health care expenses without giving them a raise to compensate.

Deductibles increased from the state plan to the Aetna plan, she said, giving a single coverage plan as an example.

“We went from the $1,000 deductible to a $3,500 deductible in just one year,” she said.

Schneweis said she surveyed teachers recently over their health care expenses. Out of the 175 who responded, she said, 18% are forgoing some health care.

“They are neglecting health needs because of the cost, which is very concerning to me,” she said.

“The proposal they have kept bringing to the table, unchanged — they have not wavered from it — is that they want to cap what they pay toward our insurance for next year, not this school year, but for next year. But we’re trying to negotiate this year’s contract. I don’t feel like they’re really negotiating salary with us because we won’t agree to the insurance piece for 2021,” she said.

The teachers are asking for what would essentially be a $2,000 a year raise for each teacher on the district’s pay schedule. The district has offered $1,300.

The Hays NEA figures its requested raise would cost about $688,000, a little more than half the $1.3 million extra funding USD 489 received from the Kansas Legislature’s $90 million boost of school funding this year in its effort to satisfy the state Supreme Court’s mandate for constitutional funding.

“The legislators really went out of their way this year to pass this new school finance bill with the express purpose of increasing teacher pay across the state of Kansas,” Schneweis said.

Walker said while he understands the NEA’s position and does want to increase teacher salaries, the board is charged with overseeing the overall, long-term stability of the district. That means having a contingency fund, planning for facility improvements — especially with voters turning down two attempts at a bond — and having the money to allow teachers to try new programs in their classrooms, he said.

The contingency reserve is another point of disagreement between the two sides. That fund at the end of the 2019 fiscal year was at $1.2 million, an increase of about $300,000 over the previous year.

“There’s no magic number on that,” Walker said of how much money that fund should have. “The idea is we have to have enough money available immediately for emergencies.”

He cited examples such as tornado or hail damage — such as recently happened at Hays Middle School with windows knocked out by hail resulting in water damage to a special education classroom — or structural problems in a building, such as plumbing issues that struck Roosevelt Elementary School last year.

“The idea is we slowly want to increase the contingency funds and we want to consistently put money into the other accounts that we need to have money for, including we want to make sure we continue to fund vertical and horizontal movement” for teachers on the pay schedule, he said.

“I felt like we get sort of criticized for not planning ahead, and then we get criticized for planning ahead. But we really do think it’s best to plan ahead,” he said.

Schneweis said since the Legislature's school funding plan guarantees increases for the next three years, large contributions to the contingency funds should not be an urgent need.

“I think we all acknowledge the philosophy of them having a little rainy day fund ... it seems extreme that they’re trying to amass it so fast, and at the expense of raises for the teachers,” she said.

“Long story short is we just got stuck. We felt that there should be more movement on the side of the teachers to agree to discussing the defined contributions (for insurance premiums) right now,” Walker said.

Schneweis said it’s been difficult for the bargaining unit to trust the board because of unfulfilled promises over the years, including the switch in insurance providers.

“We just had too many unfulfilled promises on that last insurance change for us to feel good about going forward with a set number,” she said.

“We have told them at every single meeting, we want to work with you on this, we understand that insurance is an issue, please, let’s work together. And you can see where that went,” she said.