DANVILLE — The two sides bargaining new contracts for Danville teachers and other employees agreed on Thursday to form a task force to study health insurance costs and possible cost-saving strategies.
"Both teams agreed that insurance proposals are a major stumbling block to settling the contract," said Robin Twidwell, the Danville Education Association's president. "We hope this will help us resolve this issue and allow us to get this contract settled."
The subcommittee will be made up of an equal number of school district and Danville Education Association negotiators and members.
It will hold its first study session on Jan. 30 and report its findings and recommendations to the negotiating teams on Feb. 26. Then both sides will resume talks with a federal mediator on March 4 and 7.
This week, the district and union began bargaining two contracts with the help of the mediator. The current two-year contracts — one for teachers and teaching assistants and another for secretaries and learning resource clerks — expired on June 30.
"I feel we've made some progress," said Superintendent Mark Denman, who is not directly involved in the negotiations.
He said earlier this week, the board offered a counterproposal to the DEA's teacher-teaching assistant proposal but declined to discuss details concerning insurance. That association's proposal was offered on Dec. 4.
The district has had a task force to keep current with insurance costs and changes; however, it hasn't convened for a while.
"This time, the task force is specific to bargaining," Twidwell said. "We're hopeful that once we have a better direction on this issue that we'll be able to settle many of the other issues."
Earlier this month, the school board ratified a three-year contract with its union representing custodial staff. Under the agreement, custodians' hourly base pay will increase 45 cents this fiscal year, 30 cents during the second year and 20 cents during the final year.
And for the first time, members are making monthly contributions for individual health insurance — $10 this year, $11 during the second year and $12 during the final year.
District officials also want other employee groups to help shoulder the rising insurance costs. The district spent nearly $5.08 million on insurance during the last fiscal year, according to Business and Finance Director Heather McKiernan.
But Twidwell said the board's request in its original teacher-teaching assistant proposal would cost employees "a considerable" amount of money.
"They're looking at increasing the cost anywhere from $1,200 to $8,000," she said. "They're also proposing a hard (salary) freeze and increasing our work day. Basically, they're asking us to work 7 percent more time along with no increase in pay and these insurance concessions."
Still, following Thursday's bargaining session, Twidwell agreed with Denman that talks are finally moving in the right direction.
"That has always been our interest," she said. "We have never wanted to jeopardize the financial strength of the district. It's our livelihood. We've always wanted to sit down and have a collaborative conversation about how we can maintain that financial strength and still show that we value the hard work and dedication of our staff."