DANBURY - The Danbury teachers' union and the Board of Education have endorsed a three-year contract that provides competitive wage increases while adjusting insurance costs to save money.

The 2006-09 contract, which covers 770 teachers and about 100 additional certified staff, saves the district about $750,000 in medical costs the first year and increases the starting salary for new teachers. "I think it was a fair settlement," said
William Murray , president of the Danbury/ National Teachers Association . The school board approved the agreement at last week's meeting. "We did feel going in that we wanted to help the city with the insurance costs," Murray said. "We had a consultant who made recommendations on insurance for cost savings for the town that would keep our benefits as close to what we have possible. It's a nationwide issue. Insurance costs are going out of sight." Danbury Superintendent
Eddie Davis
, who was part of the school district's negotiating team, called it a good agreement for both parties. "I'm very pleased we were able to work together and come up with an amicable settlement in all aspects," Davis said. "Our goal was to provide a wage increase that is respectful of our employees and one we can afford, and continue to be able to provide our excellent medical benefits." School board chairman
George O'Loughlin said the settlement was fair and everyone worked hard to make it happen. "It's critical for the school board to stave off the expanding cost of health care," he said. "Now we can hope that people will self-regulate their use of it." He thought the higher starting salary would be useful in recruiting new teachers, especially since so many veteran teachers will retire in the next decade. The contract provides a general salary increase of 3.5 percent for 2006-07, 2.75 percent for the second year, and 3.15 percent for the third year. The previous three-year contract provided 3.7 percent increases for each of the three years. In addition, the new contract requires employees to pay a higher portion of their health premiums with
Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield . The previous contract required employees to pay 10 percent of their medical premiums each year. In this contract, employees will pay 11 percent the first year and 13 percent the following two years. The contract also calls for teachers to pay higher copays for some services, inlcuding prescriptions and doctor visits. The district pays about $20 million a year in employee health benefits. A combined medical and dental plan costs $7,156 for a single employee and $17, 374 for a family. The contract calls for a starting salary for a first-year teacher of $41,981, which was increased over last year's starting pay of $38,400. The salary for a teacher with a master's degree and more than 14 years of service is $75,280. The contract provides top salaries higher than many in the region, while also making the starting salary more competitive, Murray said. He acknowledged the increases on the previous three-year contract were higher, but said it was a better time economically and came after 10 to 12 years of very low raises. Murray was glad the settlement was reached during the mediation process and did not go to arbitration. "We passed the mediation time before we hammered it out, but we avoided arbitration,'' Murray said. "You want both sides to take responsibility for the outcome." City officials, too, were impressed with the results. "I think they did an outstanding job. They negotiated meaningful changes that will save the district some money," Danbury finance director
Dena Dioriosaid Wednesday While city officials don't have a say in the agreement, Diorio said she met with Davis and schools' finance director Elio Longo about what she felt was important. The city of Danbury has settled contracts in recent years with fire and municipal workers that yielded concessions on health insurance to save the city money. But the city could not settle the police department's contract and it is in binding arbitration. That means an arbiter will decide the agreement after hearing arguments from both the city and the police negotiators about what they want. One more arbitration hearing is set for December and a decision is expected in the next couple of months. "Health insurance is the fastest growing portion of our budget. It's one of the costs that is very difficult to control because the cost is growing higher than the inflation rate,'' Diorio said. "It's the one area we're focused on in all our union negotiations."

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