Teachers who do their math might be smiling this week, knowing that their new salary contract will boost wages by as much as 27 per cent over three years, turning today's $50,000 job into a $63,893 position by the fall of 2003.
And by 2003, school leaders predict that almost two-thirds of the teachers on the Island will be at the top scale, the bulk of them earning salaries of about $65,000 a year. Now, 46 per cent of the teachers are at the top of the salary chart.
The new contract for the Island's 276 teachers was approved this week by the all-Island school committee after just four meetings at the bargaining table with leaders of the two teacher unions. The contract covers the three years beginning in the fall of 2001.
"The process was important, and it was abbreviated," said school committee member Tim Dobel of Oak Bluffs, who headed the negotiation committee. "Traditionally these stir up a lot of acrimony - people dig in their heels, and there's name-calling. They can get pretty ugly, but I didn't want to do it that way. We decided we would each come in with requests that would be reasonable."
On the union side, there was satisfaction. "The teachers are very comfortable with this," said Duncan Ross, a theatre and government teacher at the regional high school who heads up the Martha's Vineyard Regional Teachers and Educators Association.
Mr. Ross pointed out that in previous contracts, teachers pulled down annual cost-of-living increases that amounted to just 10 per cent over three years. In this newest contract, the increases of 3.5 per cent in the first year, followed by 4.5 per cent hikes in each of the next two years, amount to almost 13 per cent in cost-of-living raises over the same term.
Teachers are also entitled to annual step increases in their salary scale, and those increases of 4.35 per cent, Mr. Ross said, were in line with previous contracts.
While teachers are pleased with the results, school leaders point to one concession they won from the work force. Beginning in the fall, teachers will work 184 days, two more days than the current contract requires. Those two extra days do not signal a longer school year for students, but rather built-in time for professional development.
"The committee felt this was a really important coup for us," said Mr. Dobel. "They might have gotten a little more money than we wanted to give, but they're also extending when they're having to work."
Mr. Ross did not view the extra days as any hardship. Teachers, he said, will retain flexibility about when to commit those extra two days as staff development. Plus, such training is also required of teachers to maintain their state certification status.
While the three-year deal spelled good news for the majority of teachers who are at or close to the top of the pay scale, this new contract does not reflect any concerted effort to bring starting salaries to the point where living on the Vineyard would appear more affordable.
The problem of attracting new teachers is expected to become more acute as the aging force of teachers reaches retirement in the next few years. Mr. Dobel said the latest prediction is that 11 teachers are set to lay down the chalk at the end of this year. Plus, both the high school and the Oak Bluffs School already have plans to hire 12 new teachers, not counting replacements.
To make the salary scale more enticing to those new teachers, Mr. Ross said, the first two steps on the scale were combined. Instead of 13 steps, there are now 12. The logic is that with fewer rungs on the ladder, beginners will move up more quickly, said Mr. Ross.
Still, there was little optimism that the new contract will make a dent in the problem of affordable housing. Under next year's contract, teachers with one or two years of experience will be offered salaries of $34,545. If they have a master's degree, they could earn $36,673 a year.
"A lot of the new hires have an Island connection like a grandmother's house here. That doesn't mean they're not good teachers," said Mr. Ross, "but a lot of good, qualified teachers can't come here."
And Mr. Dobel said, "We've lost teachers who realize they're never going to be able to buy in."
But both Mr. Ross and Mr. Dobel conceded that the bargaining process was not about solving the issue of attracting new teachers. Serious consideration was never given to putting more resources into the lower part of the salary scale. "Realistically, you've got a lot of teachers getting close to retirement, and they're willing to do a little, but unions take care of themselves," said Mr. Dobel.
Mr. Dobel defended the pay scale for teachers in the Vineyard public schools. He said that the rates are below what teachers on Nantucket earn and closer to wages on the Cape.
"There's some talk that the pay increases are too big, " said Mr. Dobel. "But remember all the new demands being placed on teachers and new stresses with integrated classrooms. You have to compensate them well if you want them to do the things that we're asking of them. They're not going to be millionaires, but you have to pay them a wage that will be a decent living."