2015-08-27 / Around Town

Newport Teachers Still Have No Deal

By James Merolla

As Newport students prepare to re-enter classrooms for the new school year, their teachers will be entering their second year of work with no contract.

Superintendent Colleen Jermain confirmed Wednesday, Aug. 26, that the schools made a contract proposal as recently as three weeks ago to the union but have not received a response.

“We presented a proposal to the union to consider. They have not gotten back to us,” said Jermain. Details of the proposal could not be revealed for legal reasons.

It is a familiar scenario: Teachers want raises; the schools have no money for raises. In fact, the schools are still scrambling through loans with the city to pay off a nearly $1.4 million shortfall carried over from last year’s budget.

Jermain and the committee had to lay off teachers and make other tough decisions to balance their this year's budget.

School Committee member David Carlin III told Newport This Week that the committee had met with the union four times over the calendar year without a new agreement. Carlin intimated that if current negotiations continue to stall, both sides may be headed for independent arbitration later this year.

Jermain said, “There is no arbitration (presently). We are trying to avoid that.”

Carlin, however, painted a scenario where such an independent mediator might be pursued. Any arbitration would be “non-binding,” Carlin said, unlike police and fire department contracts which the state of Rhode Island declared more than 40 years ago would “bind” both the municipality and the public safety unions to accept without question any rendered decision.

“If it came to arbitration, because such a decision would be nonbinding, we could decide to accept it, or not accept it, and so could the union,” said Carlin. “I can’t speak for the committee, but unless the arbitrator ruled with a decision that the School Committee thought was really terrific, I don’t think we would accept it. I think we might be headed the way of East Providence.”

Carlin’s reference was to a landmark and controversial 2008 battle in that city not unlike what Newport faces now.

Tensions were high when the schools wanted to make cuts to teacher salaries and benefits. Teachers wanted raises and the department was in a financial bind. Not only did the School Committee reject raises, it wanted to save millions more through additional cutbacks and perk removals. They finally sought arbitration.

When an independent arbitrator finally ruled, the East Providence School Committee rejected the non-binding decision and made unprecedented unilateral decisions, freezes and changes after the teachers’ contract expired on Oct. 31, 2008. This included cutting pay five percent and making teachers co-pay 20 percent of their health premiums, as well as eliminating some bonuses and generous off-day benefits.

The changes resulted in the district saving roughly $9 million that year, according to one school committee member. Predictably, the East Providence Teachers’ Union sued the schools. A protracted legal battle produced two results: A Superior Court Judge upheld the School Committee’s unilateral changes against the union, opening the door for other districts to attempt to follow suit; and, the city ran up more than $1.3 million in legal fees (although their overall net savings exceeded $6.5 million).

Outraged by School Committee freelancing, the schools backed strong committee candidates in the 2010 election and every school board member who supported the union bypass was voted out of office.

Over the next two years, the new committee members began implementing decisions to restore much of what the 2008-2009 committee had cut out. Some critics say the cuts weren’t worth it, as the committee could not properly do its job during its final year and the district was polarized with ill will on both sides.

On a positive note, with enrollment increasing in all three Newport schools, the School Committee voted 5-0 to recall four teachers that had been laid off.

They also appointed Nicole Silvia to be a new social worker at Rogers High School, and Nathan Ruchames, a new social worker at Thompson Middle School.

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