The Riverside District 96 School Board approved a new three-year contract with its teachers union, the Riverside Education Council (REC), at its Aug. 21 meeting, marking the first time in 18 years that negotiations between the two sides have concluded before the beginning of the school year.

The main changes to the three-year contract, which ends in 2010, include a 3-percent raise plus additional “step” increases in teacher salaries. There is also a new requirement that those carrying individual health insurance plans pay a portion of their insurance costs.

In 2007-08, the starting salary for teachers with a bachelor’s degree is $37,913. While the baseline salary for 2008-09 represents a 3 percent increase over the previous years, teachers will actually receive raises of greater than 3 percent when step increases are factored in.

For example, that same baseline teacher who makes $37,913 in 2007-08, will make $40,222 in 2008-09, when the step increase is included-a 6 percent increase. If that same teacher earns a master’s degree, the salary would bump up to $44,127 (including the step increase) in 2008-09, a 16-percent pay increase.

Teachers who have a master’s degree with 20 or 30 years experience and at the 20th step increase will receive 3.5 percent raises, according to the terms of the contract.

The 59-page agreement between the REC and District 96 also provides for an early retirement incentive that combines higher pay increases with a final stipend.

Any teacher who has completed 20 years of full-time service and is 55 years old can opt for the retirement bonus. After submitting a letter of resignation, the teacher’s salary is increased 6 percent for the following school year. Teachers can take the 6-percent increase for up to four years before retiring.

When that teacher retires, the district also agrees to pay a lump-sum, post-retirement service stipend. Teachers with 20 to 25 years of full-time service will receive $500 per full-time year of service; teachers with 26 years or more will receive $600 per year. Thus, a teacher with 20 years of service will receive a stipend of $10,000, while a 30-year veteran would receive an $18,000 stipend upon retirement. In lieu of the service stipend, retiring teachers can opt for a $3,600-per-year reimbursement for post-retirement health insurance for up to five consecutive years.

Under the terms of the contract, the school district will pay 95 percent of each full-time teacher’s individual health insurance. The district will contribute 85 percent of family health coverage for teachers.

District 96 Superintendent Jonathan Lamberson credited the early completion of the contract to a new negotiation method, interest-based bargaining, that the district and union used this year. He said it was different from the traditional negotiation process in that instead of one side coming up with an offer and the other side responding with a counteroffer, interest-based bargaining required both parties to sit down together and go through the contract topic-by-topic. Both Lamberson and board members involved in the negotiations said this led to better communication with union representatives.

“I think everybody resoundingly enjoyed the experience, and we learned a lot,” board President Cheryl Berdelle said.

Lamberson noted that the bargaining also allowed for more detailed changes to be made to the contract. For example, the language in a section dealing with teachers’ preparation time was clarified at the request of union representatives, a change Lamberson said would probably have been overlooked using the old negotiation methods.

Gale Teune, a co-president of the REC and a fourth-grade teacher at Central School, shared Lamberson’s assessment. She was not on the union’s negotiation team, but said she only heard positive feedback about the negotiations.

“Our old contract was very vague and many issues were left open to interpretation. The new language in this contract should help with this,” Teune said in an e-mail. “The vote [on the contract] was close, but it passed with a majority. I hope the same method of negotiating is used in the future.”