Written by , mryan@dmreg.com | Des Moines Register

Each year, the Iowa Department of Education releases its Condition of Education report. Here are 7 facts about Iowa schools from its 2016 report. Wochit

Waterloo teachers who work with some of the most challenging special education students will earn $6,000 more than other teachers with similar seniority and credentials.

In Burlington, decisions about where teachers will work and which programs they will lead are no longer based solely on seniority.

And in Carlisle, teachers who break their contracts to take a new job in another district face a $1,000 penalty.

These are just a few ways Iowa schools are re-examining teacher compensation after an overhaul of the state’s collective bargaining law.

This past session, the Republican-led Legislature reduced the ability of unions to negotiate on behalf of public employees, including public school teachers.

The change grants district leaders greater decision-making power. Districts are still required to work with unions to set base wages, but the new law prohibits collective bargaining for things like additional pay, seniority, grievances, employment benefits, insurance and other employment policies and procedures.

The Register contacted nearly 30 school districts that have signed new teacher contracts since the law took effect in February and found a wide variety of changes to district policies that previously fell under union negotiations.

 In Waterloo, changes include an effort to retain some special education teachers and para-educators who work with students who have behavioral challenges. The goal is to keep teachers from leaving the district and provide more consistency for challenging students.

Special education teachers “should absolutely feel that support; they should feel the support because it’s coming with additional resources,” said Waterloo Superintendent Jane Lindaman.

Waterloo’s decision marks a “positive shift” for public schools, said state Rep. Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls, who chairs the House Education Committee. “It’s common sense. It’s one of the things we were hoping for,” he said.

Yet some fear changes in compensation could create dividing lines between teachers, creating winners and losers, and pitting districts against each other as they compete for staff with pay.

 “You’re saying one teacher is more valuable than another,” said state Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, ranking member of the House Education Committee. “What would be more helpful, instead of pitting one teacher against each other, is more help in the classroom.”

Shift from seniority

A major shift in some districts is the changing role that seniority plays in how teachers are rewarded. State law now prohibits districts from negotiating with unions over seniority-related policies and perks.

“I don’t think that parents of students or the taxpayers would automatically assume that seniority equals higher-qualified teachers,” said state Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig.

Prior to a recent change, for example, position transfers in Burlington schools were based solely on seniority.

Each spring, teachers would gather in an auditorium for what was known as “bid day” to view and “bid” on open positions. Teachers with the most seniority bid first, which prevented younger teachers from obtaining certain positions or working in sought-after schools.

As a result of the law change, Burlington schools will consider other factors in transfer decisions this spring.

Sharon Dentlinger, the district’s director of curriculum, said the goal is “to get highly qualified people and the most energetic, motivated, enthusiastic people to work with our kids.”

Yet many remain skeptical. Internal school politics could become a larger factor in hiring decisions if a consistent measuring stick such as seniority is not used, said state Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines.

“When seniority is one but not the exclusive factor, you have a lot of room to pick and choose favorites,” he said.

Tammy Wawro, president of the Iowa State Education Association, said that the collective bargaining bill will deter future teachers from the profession. The Register

Some superintendents have addressed staff concerns about the shift away from seniority head-on, reminding staff that Iowa employment law still applies. It prohibits discrimination based on certain characteristics such as age.

Last spring, a group of teachers went to Waterloo Superintendent Jane Lindaman with concerns that the new law would allow the district to fire the most experienced teachers as a cost-savings measure.

“I said, ‘Absolutely not, we will never do that,'” Lindaman said. “It would not be good for kids … we value teachers, and teachers who have been here for a while play a great role.”

Tammy Wawro, president of the state teachers union, said teachers are still “in shock, and in some cases they are very scared” by the changes.

“Morale is very low in places I go,” she said.

Policy changes

Many districts contacted by the Register kept policies or procedures previously negotiated with unions in their handbooks, which now govern most employee pay and benefit decisions.

But some are testing the waters by making smaller changes.

In Carlisle schools, for example, teachers who break their contracts for the upcoming school year will pay a $1,000 penalty, although a waiver is offered for unforeseen circumstances.

The penalty is designed to keep teachers from leaving the district for higher-paying jobs elsewhere.

Each summer, some Carlisle teachers are lured away by offers in the Des Moines metro, said Superintendent Bryce Amos. “It does put a hardship on the district to fill those positions in the summer,” he said.

Such changes mark a shift in decision-making power. Superintendents told the Register they continue to seek input from teachers and staff, just not in the way previously required.

“For 40 or 50 years, this is all Iowa has known — it’s always been collective bargaining,” said Bill Thompson, superintendent of Hartley-Melvin-Sanborn. “It’s a whole new world.”

This spring, about 140 districts rushed to pass and extend multi-year contracts prior to legislation taking effect.

The majority of school districts will negotiate contracts with teachers under the new rules by the 2018-19 school year, according to a Register review of data from Iowa’s Public Employment Relations Board. The rest will follow in subsequent years.

Some speculate that teachers could seek other ways to influence district policies through local school board politics. Elected officials hire and oversee superintendents.

“You’re going to have people getting more involved in the political end of things,” said Randy Richardson, a former leader of the state teachers union who is now part of Iowans for Public Education, a Facebook group with more than 12,000 members.

Pay changes to come?

A lingering question is just how aggressive some Iowa districts will be in competing for top teachers or staff, and how willing those professionals are to move districts.

For decades, many of Iowa’s teacher contracts created the opposite effect: Disincentives to relocate or move between districts.

It wasn’t unusual for a 20-year veteran teacher to be compensated at the rate of a 10-year teacher when hired by another district, for example.

“You almost paid a financial penalty to move,” said Thompson, superintendent of Hartley-Melvin-Sanborn school district.

Superintendents told the Register they’re watching how neighboring districts change their approach to pay, recruitment and incentives. If necessary, they could make changes to stay competitive.

North Scott’s district is already studying different pay structures, reviewing more than 20 different approaches instituted by Wisconsin districts, including a more contentious model that rewards teachers based on performance.

In some states, that’s come to mean a system that pays teachers more money if student test scores improve or if they take on tougher assignments.

One challenge of the current system is how long it takes young teachers to reach a competitive wage, North Scott Superintendent Joe Stutting said.

“We’ve got to attract the best,” he said. “That’s not just competing against (nearby districts), it’s also competing against private industry in a strong economy.”

That has some district officials concerned. In the 500-student district of Griswold in western Iowa, for example, no pay increases were granted this year.

“It really depends upon other schools,” Griswold Superintendent David Henrichs said. “If they start offering huge signing bonuses, it’s going to put us at a disadvantage.”

Management decisions

While it’s unclear how the state’s collective bargaining overhaul will affect Iowa’s 333 school districts, the Register largely found examples of changes being made to address local issues.

Superintendents are doing “what they can to address whatever they need to address,” said Roark Horn, executive director of the School Administrators of Iowa.

In grade-sharing districts of Prairie Valley and Southeast-Webster-Grand, for example, leaders used changes in the law to align employee pay and benefits.

The districts participate in whole grade sharing, meaning students from both communities attend class with one another, and teachers from both districts work in the same schools.

Despite that collaboration, teachers previously worked a different number of days, had different insurance options and even earned different wages — all based on separately negotiated union contracts.

The two rural districts had been working for multiple years toward a common agreement, but were unable to reach one through collective bargaining, Superintendent Brian Johnson said.

Under the new law, the decision-making process was streamlined for Southeast Valley schools, as they’re collectively known.

“We were able to meet and confer with a group of association leaders on both sides, and hash it out more smoothly than bickering over the fine details,” Johnson said.

Boulton, the Des Moines legislator, said a similar outcome “should have been easy to reach through a quality bargaining process.”

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “We threw out a process that hinged on reasonable compromise.”

But some disagree. The law’s intent was to give decision-making power back to administrators and school boards, who are more accountable to parents and taxpayers, said Schultz, the Schleswig legislator.

“There is always going to be some people disappointed, yet you can’t stay in a difficult situation forever,” Schultz said. “This situation sounds very similar to (one in the) private sector, where a decision has to be made.”