The Baltimore Teachers Union has voted overwhelmingly to ratify a three-year contract with the school board after more than a year and a half of tense negotiations.
The contract approved Monday night ensures teachers' health care benefits through the end of 2019 and provides them with a one-time stipend of 1 percent of their 2016-2017 salaries. The union will continue bargaining for cost-of-living adjustments in coming years.
"These negotiations have been long and tiring," BTU President Marietta English said in a statement. "In the end, in an environment where the future of health care is largely uncertain, our educators agreed to pay more to guarantee the quality health care they deserve for the next two years."
The school board is scheduled to vote on the contract at its Oct. 24 meeting. The new contract would be effective retroactive to July 1, 2016.
Teachers will be paying slightly higher co-pays and premiums, though the contract eliminates annual deductibles and allows for unlimited lifetime benefits. Eligible dependents under the age of 26 will be covered by the city schools' health plan.
"Our members are committed to educating our city's children, no matter the circumstances," English said. "Now, they will be able to do so without having to worry about their own health care, a sick child not being able to get the care they need, or how to pay for hospice for a spouse or a dependent in the last stage of life."
Nick McDaniels, law and leadership teacher at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, said stability surrounding health care benefits is a major draw for career teachers.
"As a professional in Baltimore city public schools for nine years, I want to make sure we have a contract that attracts people who view this as a career choice," he said.
Drawn out debate led to Monday's ratification, which was supported by more than 90 percent of the teachers who voted. The contract covers about 6,000 teachers.
Negotiations dragged past multiple deadlines, and took place in an usually public arena. Last October, hundreds of dissatisfied teachers showed up to district headquarters wearing yellow in a sign of solidarity. A few months later, English sent a letter to union members calling district negotiators "ineffective and indecisive." The school board and teachers' union reached an impasse in May, and asked a mediator to take over.
The union believed the district was attempting to cut millions in compensation and benefits. City schools CEO Sonja Santelises denied wanting to reduce salaries.
The last teachers' contract was approved in 2014, and preserved many of the terms of a 2010 contract that was celebrated as one of the most progressive in the country. This "landmark" deal tied teacher pay to performance, and served to elevate Baltimore teachers' pay to some of the highest beginning and midcareer salaries in the state. But the agreement has strained the budget in recent years.
City schools CEO Sonja Santelises alluded to the financial considerations in her written statement.
"We have included provisions that begin to address the issues of rising costs for total employee compensation that have contributed to our systemic budget gaps in recent years," she said.
Last December, Santelises announced a $130 million shortfall in the $1.31 billion budget for this school year, and the system was forced to lay off about 115 people.
Under the ratified contract, teachers would receive their 1 percent stipend from last school year before the holiday season. Negotiations will continue in the coming months on the cost of living adjustment for the 2017-2018 school year.
"We hope that the district will show as much commitment to their teachers as our teachers show to their students every day in the classroom," English said.
In forthcoming negotiations, district officials say they hope to reward teachers for their professional accomplishments while also managing the rate of salary increases as the system faces ongoing budget troubles.
Geralda Thompson, lead teacher at James Mosher Elementary, said she and other teachers live and breathe the work they do in schools, and should be fairly compensated for it.
"I hope it won't be a struggle just to receive the basic cost of living raise that's due to all the professionals that get out on the front lines every day," she said. "We try to ensure we're doing the best we can for every child we stand in front of."