High Court To Weigh In On Teacher Hiring Bonuses

High Court To Weigh In On Teacher Hiring Bonuses By KEVIN O'HANLON LINCOLN, Neb. — As many Nebraska schools struggle to attract and keep teachers, the state Supreme Court is being asked to rule if they can give signing bonuses to educators without violating collective bargaining agreements.

The high court heard a case Thursday that pits the Crete Public Schools against the Crete Education Association, the local teachers union.

The case began in April 2000, when the district needed to hire an industrial arts teacher — an area where instructors are in high demand.

Only two qualified candidates applied. One took a job elsewhere.

The other, Matthew Hintz, demanded a starting annual salary of $24,000, which was $3,000 higher than salaries for other beginning teachers in the district.

At the time, the district was negotiating with the union to raise the pay for beginning teachers to $24,000 for the 2000-01 school year, but the school board agreed to pay Hintz $21,650 plus a $2,350 signing bonus.

The state Commission of Industrial Relations ruled in favor of the union, saying the school district violated the collective bargaining agreement with its teachers.

Attorney Mark McGuire, representing the union, said allowing such deals to be cut will undermine and destroy collective bargaining for teachers.

??I think that's what the school boards obviously want,'' he said. ??They can say … ?We'll negotiate with you but pay the quiet, nice people on the scale. The folks that we really want or really like, we'll pay them differently.'''

For collective bargaining to be meaningful, both sides must be bound to the agreement, McGuire said.

Karen Haase, representing Crete Public Schools, said a signing bonus is not the death knell for collective bargaining.

??The district certainly couldn't pay this guy less than the starting salary'' that was negotiated by the union, she said.

She said schools must be allowed to pay what is needed to attract and keep teachers, many of whom are being recruited to states with higher salaries.

??Think about it. The district got sued by the union for paying one of its teachers too much,'' Haase said. ??This case raises serious issues about school districts' ability to recruit and retain … teachers.''

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the case, the Nebraska Association of School Boards said: ??School boards need to pay some employees more than a union contract requires in order to provide education services of a quality and quantity necessary to carry out the public duty bestowed upon them by the Legislature.''

The American Federation of Teachers said that Nebraska's average annual salary for beginning teachers is $24,356, which ranked 45th nationally in 2000-01 — $4,630 less than the national average.

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