While the new contract for teachers in the Bradford Area School District includes a 4 percent increase in wages, district officials were quick to point out taxes will not go up for the next fiscal year.

"It has been seven years since there has been a tax increase and we have no intention of raising taxes next year," Superintendent Sandra Romanowski said on Monday. "We are very judicious in how we allocate money. To maintain taxes is a given; we do not even consider raising taxes. We look at things internally to find ways to do things and strengthen instructional programming."

District and union officials met with The Era Monday to discuss the terms of the contract, and the ease with which a settlement was reached.

According to information prepared by Sam Johnson, district director of human resources, the wage increase included in the contract is 4 percent to the overall salary scale. However, it is also noted that does not mean each employee will receive a 4 percent increase. How the raise is allocated is left up to the Bradford Area Education Association. The increase in the previous contract was 2.6 percent.

The starting teacher salary in the school district is currently ,35,800.

"It is not the highest and not the lowest. It is pretty much nestled in the middle in the scope of the IU (Intermediate Unit), which is what people generally use for comparison," Pennsylvania State Education Association representative Terra Begolly observed.

In addition to salary comparisons, other similar contracts in the area are measured against the school district contract to determine its feasibility.

"Our focus is on students and their success," commented Tim Bean, school board president. "The board was concerned, especially in recent months, with the economic downturn. Our goal was to look at other contracts in the area and see what compared to those. We wanted to see a balance between what the associates would see as a fair contract and what the community sees as fair and equitable. We came to the conclusion that trying to sit for 16 to 18 months and negotiate was not in the best interest of the students. The early bird was.

"We see this contract as comparable to other associates' contracts. Looking at the economy and considering a lot of people are laid off in the community, they may not appreciate that we are giving the teachers an increase in salary or that we didn't try for more contributions to health insurance. However, the board's concern is what is in the best interest of the students."

Romanowski said officials began discussing this contract after previous contract negotiations had ended.

"Sam (Johnson) and I attended a conference where it was said the time to begin negotiations was the day after the contract was approved," Romanowski explained. "After the previous contract negotiations were over, we decided it was time to start new and build a relationship that puts the kids first.

"It's very important from my perspective to show that we are beginning a new era and are working together to resolve issues and jointly identify concerns. If we can do that and improve the program and instructional offerings through an early bird contract, that is an accomplishment."

The four-year contract, which will expire in 2013, was approved Jan.12 as an "early bird" contract, so named because negotiations began much earlier than the required start date.

"Under Act 88, the Local and District are required to begin negotiations by Jan. 10 the year the contract expires. Anytime you start bargaining some time before then is an 'early bird,'" Begolly explained. "If we started in December that would just be negotiating early, but we actually had preliminary discussions in early summer (of 2008). When we met, we realized we weren't horribly far apart for a realistic settlement. Both sides can make bargaining last for 16 months and make it horribly contentious or can try to work to resolve issues. We were realistic in bargaining so we could reach an 'early bird' settlement.

"There was a tremendous concern for the needs of the kids. Whenever we met, the kids were the core of the discussion."

In terms of health insurance, co-pay contributions from teachers will increase, according to the contract, from ,90,040 for 2008-2009 to ,113,768 for 2009-10. Teachers will also be paying a percent of the average salary, rather than a co-pay with a cap.

Negotiations for the last contract took 16 months to complete, with issues like salary increases and contributions for health care becoming major points of disagreement.

"Health insurance and salary are always going to be important issues. Those negotiations did go more smoothly this time, as we could truly talk about them," Begolly explained. "Neither side beat their chests or dug their heels in the sand, so we could actually think of different ways to handle the issues."

When asked what factored into more amiable negotiations this time around, it was easily apparent in the answers given.

"We know each other. Sam did a great job; he knew the issues because he is here every day," Begolly added. "We had discussions that were more meaningful and productive. A limited number of people were involved, and they all knew what was going on."

"It was the trust factor," Johnson added. "I could say, 'That's not possible' when Terra made a suggestion and she would know I meant it, I wasn't just saying it to slow negotiations. That was also true for her, she could say 'We can't do that' and I would know she meant it."

The early retirement incentive has been reconfigured so as to avoid a teacher's retirement mid-year. In the previous contract, a teacher could not have more than 35 years of service if retiring under the incentive, which meant the teacher had to retire at the 35-year mark, even if that happened to be in the middle of a school year. The current incentive states the teacher must complete the year they reach 35 years of service; however they will still be eligible for the incentive at the end of the school term.

"You can think of it two ways, but one way is that in difficult economic times at home, when you are cutting back, it's reassuring to know one thing your child is not lacking is a good education with good resources. And we provide that without raising taxes," Romanowski observed.

Some additional changes the contract includes are a decrease in both flex days and early dismissal days; flex days will be reduced from four to two and early dismissal days will be reduced from seven to five, with one at the end of each of the first five marking periods.

Block Time or Staff Development Time after school will also decrease from eight to five days. Teacher In-Service Days will increase however, from four to six.