2015-10-15 / Front Page

Teachers Reject Last Offer

By James Merolla

Negotiations have ended between the 200 members of the Teachers Association of Newport (TAN) and the School Committee, leading to an arbitration hearing set for Monday, Oct. 19, something that has seemed inevitable for months.

School Superintendent Colleen Jermain formally announced the upcoming arbitration at the Oct. 13 committee meeting, but said nothing else publicly about the ongoing conflict.

Members of NEA Newport have continued teaching since their last labor contract expired on Aug. 31, 2014, and was extended for one year by mutual agreement with no changes.

While the committee and Jermain withheld public comment, TAN President Christie Cykert used the public forum of the meeting to vehemently express her outrage over several issues, including caps on class sizes, and added classes with no accompanying compensation. Cykert was fresh off a 5 p.m. meeting at Fenner Hall where members of TAN rejected the final School Committee offer by a vote of 115 to 32.

Cykert began her four-minute lashing by listing her accom- plishment, longtime Rogers High School teacher, TAN president, parent of two Rogers grads and stepparent of two others, coach of track, tennis, cross county and a former athletic director for a year. She added that she has served as an educator in 12 communities.

“I care about this community. I care about the kids in this community,” said Cykert. “I have never, ever, seen [such] disrespect for teachers and disregard for teachers in Newport. Show me one piece of evidence that large class size has helped kids. I’ve had some of your kids and you know that small class sizes are better.”

Class sizes are maxed out at the three Newport public schools. The maximum at Pell Elementary is 24 students this year, and Thompson Middle School and Rogers High School max out at 25 students per class.

Cykert, her voice rising sharply in anger, called the committee’s lack of support “shameful,” and “awful.” “And it’s sad to me that you did the cheap thing and not the right thing,” by not hiring more teachers or increasing salaries.

Teachers have argued that when a class cap size is reached, more classes should be added with more teachers to cover them, but School Committee members have said they cannot afford that at present.

Rogers High School principal Jeff Goss gave a 40-minute breakdown on scheduling at his school and how it has increased attendance over each of the last three years.

School Committee member Robert Leary told Goss that there was a “big battle” this year over class sizes being capped at 25 at Rogers and a potential $500,000 shortfall coming up already in the school budget, although later in the meeting school officials vehemently disputed Leary’s contention as premature.

Leary argued that the schools will have to look into trimming or changing schedules to make even better use of time and save extra money. “We’re going to have to make some cuts” said Leary. “We are going to have to look at scheduling differently and come up with [new] ideas.

“We really packed the students into our classes this year,” said Goss. “We made the best out of scheduling to make sure they get everything they need.”

“Would I like to see our class size lowered? Definitely,” he added. He said the top students at the school “can handle” classes with 24 students in them, but those without individual attention “are having more difficulty.”

Goss said that three sections of senior English are maxed out at 25 with no room for more students. “If a military kid comes in [now] and wants to take senior English, we don’t have a seat for him,” said Goss.

In years past, teachers have accepted increases in class size beyond the max in exchange for added pay. The union has acknowledged they would continue to do this, but in a prepared statement, released after the vote, TAN said, “The teachers are furious that a School Committee and a superintendent would knowingly stack classrooms at the start of the school year and expect teachers to accept money for overages. Teachers will not accept cash on the heads of kids! When we say kids first, we mean it.”

Goss compared scheduling with seven other districts, including East Greenwich, Barrington, Middletown, Tolman High (Pawtucket), Cranston East and others, saying the present model works because attendance has increased every year over the past three years. Goss said it was 87 percent three years ago, 89 percent last year, and up to 93.76 last year. “But I’m not sure the daily schedule has much to do with that. I attribute that to our teachers,” he added.

Both sides have agreed that John Harrington will lead the arbitration panel on Monday through the American Arbitration Association. Pete Gingras will represent the teachers while Ron Cascione will represent the committee on the three-member panel. School and NEA attorneys will make the cases for each side.

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