2015-09-03 / Front Page

Schools, Union Dig In

Offer Rejected, Arbitration Likely
By James Merolla


Aaron Sherman, a first-grade teacher at Pell School and a concerned parent, expresses his thoughts on a poster. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Aaron Sherman, a first-grade teacher at Pell School and a concerned parent, expresses his thoughts on a poster. (Photo by Jack Kelly) The week prior to the start of the new academic year proved to be a tumultuous one for Newport teachers, the School Committee, and Superintendent Colleen Jermain.

The Teachers Association of Newport (TAN) took a vote of no confidence in Jermain and rejected the school’s latest contract offer. TAN is entering its second year without a contract, with its last agreement having expired on Aug. 30, 2014.

The union has also filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the School Committee with the State Labor Relations Board.

On Wednesday, Sept. 2, TAN took its fight to the streets, setting up an “informational picket” at Rogers High School, not far from where the committee holds its meetings.

TAN President Christie Cykert addressed the dozens of assembled teachers, all dressed in bright red. “We’ve been negotiating a new contract since the spring of 2014. The last proposal was rejected by the TAN negotiating team, and the main sticking points are an increase in class sizes in the middle school and the high school, a reduction in benefits for future retirees, and their last offer was contingent on the dismissal of all outstanding grievances. NEARI has filed an unfair labor practice with the State Labor Relations Board, concerning the offer being contingent on the dismissal of all outstanding grievances.”


The only act of reconciliation between the Newport School Department and the Teachers Association of Newport (TAN) this week was the restoration of two professional development days on Sept. 2-3, which had been rescinded as negotiations over a new contract between the union and the School Committee broke down. Teachers arrived early on Wednesday morning, Sept. 2, to show their unified commitment, walked across the Rogers High parking lot displaying a variety of protest signs, then dispersed to begin preparing for the new school year. (Photos by Jack Kelly) The only act of reconciliation between the Newport School Department and the Teachers Association of Newport (TAN) this week was the restoration of two professional development days on Sept. 2-3, which had been rescinded as negotiations over a new contract between the union and the School Committee broke down. Teachers arrived early on Wednesday morning, Sept. 2, to show their unified commitment, walked across the Rogers High parking lot displaying a variety of protest signs, then dispersed to begin preparing for the new school year. (Photos by Jack Kelly) During the rally, both Cykert and attorney Jennifer Azevedo, the National Education Association of Rhode Island’s union representative for TAN, urged the teachers to fulfill all of their contractual duties in their classroom preparations during the next week. “We will work together to show solidarity. We are united, we will continue to work together, and we will do the best we can for the kids.”

When contacted by Newport This Week on Wednesday afternoon, School Committee Chair Jo Eva Gaines said, “The teachers will be in school tomorrow for professional development. We are still talking.”

The week before, they were not. All three parties issued separate statements this week in Newport’s own strained version of Tom Brady versus the National Football League. Like that infamous case, the two sides are letting their attorneys do most of the public talking. It is almost a certainty that the contract dispute will head to an independent arbitrator for resolution.

Many developments in August have contributed to the present stalemate:

. On Aug. 13, the School Committee made its latest offer, including undisclosed pay raises, but also demanded that the union withdraw pending grievances as a condition of the new contract; the committee also called for class size increases of one to two students in certain classes at the high school and middle school. A third sticking point was a proposal to end lifetime future health benefits for new retirees and their spouses.

TAN balked.

. In a prepared statement released this week, School Committee Chair Jo Eva Gaines said that, in an attempt to avoid arbitration, the schools sent “a generous package that included no change to health care benefits for present employees and a generous financial package in return for concessions in class size for top level classes at the high school and middle school and concessions in health care benefits for future retirees.”

. Union membership overwhelmingly rejected the proposal and took a vote of no confidence in Jermain on Aug. 27. They also voted for “work to rule,” meaning they will fulfill their contractual working obligations but will do no more than required when school begins on Sept 8.

In a statement, Gaines said, “The School Committee made a generous offer to TAN and is disappointed that the membership rejected the proposal. The School Committee now has no choice but to proceed to arbitration.”

TAN responded, “Newport School Committee Chairperson Jo Eva Gaines has stated that this is a salary dispute. That is patently false. The parties have agreed to salary numbers in their latest exchange of proposals. This dispute centers on the quality of instruction for the students of Newport.”

. On Aug. 28, TAN posted a message on its website stating that increased class sizes and conditioning settlement on the withdrawal of grievances were the cause of the rejection. Gaines countered, “In terms of class size, the maximum number of students assigned per teacher would not increase and teachers would be compensated for additional students in a class. By rejecting the package there is no agreement on wages or health care. The financial package was offered contingent upon the concessions.”

Gaines added, “It is common practice to settle grievances when an agreement is reached by the parties.”

. Also on Aug. 28, TAN said of Jermain, “Since her appointment in January 2014, Superintendent Jermain has repeatedly violated the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, resulting in a number of grievances, low morale among teachers, and a general feeling of disrespect and abuse.”

In her own prepared statement, Jermain said, “I am very disappointed in the press release from NEA attorney Jennifer Azevedo. Upon my arrival in January 2014, there were grievances that had been held in abeyance or were already in the process of arbitration. More recently three more grievances were filed while we were in the process of negotiations or mediation. Unfortunately, especially when negotiations are not going smoothly, this is something that often happens.”

. In another statement, TAN’s attorney Azevedo said, “Conditioning settlement of a contract on the withdrawal of grievances is an unfair labor practice.” The two grievances at issue concern the timing of teacher pay once the new school year starts and leave without pay, Azevedo said.

. TAN filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the committee on Monday, Aug. 31.

. After meeting with teachers on Tuesday, Sept. 1, two staff professional days, set for Sept. 2 and 3, were reinstated after being rescinded through stalled negotiations.

In a letter to teachers, Jermain said, “I am happy that we had the opportunity to discuss this and look forward to resolving our other differences soon. For tomorrow (Sept. 2), please report to your buildings to get your rooms ready for your classrooms and to meet informally with your building principals. Despite the recent events, I am confident we are on the road to a great year.”

. TAN picketed at Rogers on Sept. 2.

Jermain has said that the district is making great strides educationally and in other important ways, and fears this entrenched dispute will take away from real classroom progress. “I am very proud of the hard work and success the teachers, principals, staff and our partners have had in providing more opportunities and quality instruction for our students and families. All these efforts are focused on embedded challenges such as attendance, graduation rates, implementing more rigorous academic courses and STEM activities, as well as providing more after school events and sports."

“The Newport School District is on its way to reaching the next level," she continued. "We have a state-of-the-art brand new school for our elementary students, a middle school that continues to thrive and shine, and a high school with new leadership and new focus. I look forward to a swift resolution to the contract negotiations so that all of us can focus on continuing this great work.”

She described the latest meeting with TAN as “very productive.” When contacted by Newport This Week on Wednesday evening, Jermain said that attorneys on both sides were determining the earliest possible date for an arbitration hearing in September.

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