Andover teachers and their supporters rallied in front of the School Administration building in January to protest the pace of contract talks.

ANDOVER — Teachers will receive an 8.5 percent salary increase over three years under a tentative agreement reached by the School Committee and the teachers union. In return, they will pay slightly higher co-payments for visits to doctors and prescription drugs.

The agreement, which they call a "modest increase," came after more than a year of tense negotiations.

School officials released details of the contract yesterday, a day after the union informed its membership. The Andover Education Association will vote on the contract March 27.

"It's a settlement agreed to given the tough economic times," said education association President Tom Meyers. "We'll need the next couple weeks to explain the changes."

If approved, the first year's pay increase would be covered by surplus special education money.

"There will be no affect on the budget right now," School Committee member David Samuels said.

The teachers have worked without a contract since September. Bargaining teams for the School Committee and union met more than 20 times in the last year and a half. A mediator helped the parties reach an agreement during a Feb. 18 meeting that lasted until 1:30 a.m.

Under the agreement, teachers will see a 1.5 percent raise this year. The remaining 7.5 percent breaks down into increases twice a year for two years: 1.5 percent at the beginning of the school year, and another 2 percent at the midyear point.

There would be several changes to the health care plan that officials said will decrease the rate at which insurance premiums increase, saving money for the town and employees.

Instead of rising by 9 percent to 12 percent, premiums will increase by 3 percent to 5 percent, according to Superintendent Claudia Bach.

The teachers will pay higher deductibles for outpatient surgery and inpatient admissions, but will be reimbursed by the town. Co-payments for office visits will rise $5, and prescription drug co-payments will go up $5 to $10.

"But they will be more than compensated for by the lower premiums," Samuels said.

Reimbursements will be in place for the employees with extraordinary costs. Employees also can open flexible spending plans, where they can withhold up to $4,000 from their checks, pre-taxes, toward medical expenses.

"We really pushed hard to slow health care costs down," said teacher Brian Stevens, co-chairman of the union's bargaining team.

Nurses will get a salary increase, under the tentative agreement. And high school teachers would be required to host a second open house at the high school.

"Like the entire school budget, this contract is fair, it's transparent and available for everyone to see," Samuels said.

Andover teachers are among the region's highest paid, averaging $60,968 per year in 2006, according to the Department of Education's Web site. The state average is $56,369.

But the teachers wanted salaries like those found in cities and towns like Lexington, Newton and Brookline, which they said are more comparable to Andover. The average salary in Brookline is $64,662.

"It's extremely important to keep good, highly qualified teachers here. It's what the community wants," Bach said. "We're competing with districts like Brookline and Newton for teachers."

Teachers received a 9.1 percent raise over three years in their last contract.

The teachers started attending School Committee meetings in June and held a small protest in late October. The group even took its message to the lawns, putting up signs around town that read, "Value Education ... Teacher Contracts Now."

The Andover Education Association unanimously rejected a contract offer by the School Committee in December.

Negotiations became more strained when the teachers marched downtown in January. Soon after, high school teachers voted to postpone a non-contracted teacher-parent night until an agreement was settled.

"We encourage the School Committee in the future to try to aggressively budget for future contracts as we look down the line," Stevens said.

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