2015-10-22 / Front Page

Tentative Agreement Reached

By Olga Enger

The ongoing dispute over a labor union contract between the Teachers Association of Newport (TAN) and the Newport School Committee is one step closer to a resolution this week. After mediating without breaks from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 19, they reached a tentative agreement, according to lawyers on both sides. Teachers will vote to ratify the contract on Oct. 28.

“It’s good news,” said Attorney Mary Ann Carroll, who represents the School Committee. “What we were able to work out was some compliance language around class size.”

Pell Teacher and TAN’s Vice Chair Jennifer Hole was not as positive about the outcome.

“It was a very difficult decision to come to,” said Hole, “when you know you are dealing with a School Committee where at least half of the members don’t care about the kids.” She added she supports the vote but feels they were “bullied” into the agreement.

“It couldn’t be worse for kids,” Hole continued. “There are parts of the agreement that I strongly agree with. But the one piece that is a bitter pill to swallow is the class size language. Our whole stance has been kids first. We have been bullied into something that doesn’t put kids first.”

The teachers’ last labor contract, which was settled in arbitration, expired on Aug. 31, 2014 but was extended one year to 2015. Once a contract expires, teachers work under the latest one.

Hole said she eventually agreed to the language to protect the teachers from losing benefits. The School Committee has repeatedly warned that through arbitration, teachers could end up in a worse position.

“They could end up losing their raises and end up with medical with a higher deductible,” Carroll told Newport This Week before the parties moved into arbitration.

“You are better off dealing with the devil you know,” said Hole. “We don’t know what the School Committee would do ultimately. There is a good chance it could be way worse than what we agreed.”

The School Committee’s last offer included no changes to medical benefits and salary increases of 1.5 percent in the first year of the contract, a 2.5 percent in the second year, and 2.75 percent in the third year.

Negotiations stalled when the School Committee requested the flexibility to increase class sizes. Current class sizes are capped at 24 for elementary and middle schools and 25 at the high school level. Any class over 16 students requires a teacher’s aide.

The most recent contract requires that if classes exceed those numbers, the district must open an additional class. School committee members have argued that is cost prohibitive in some circumstances.

This school year, the district opened an additional third-grade class due to an overage of four students. A high honors pre-calculus class has too many students under the existing contract, but Superintendent Colleen Jermain said it was "virtually impossible” to hire another teacher due to the class’s rotating schedule.

“We were instructed to remove the overage of children,” said Jermain. Although the teacher has not raised concerns, the union requires the district to reduce the class size, she added.

Last Tuesday, teachers rejected the School Committee’s “last, best contract offer” by a vote of 115 to 32.

“The teachers are furious that a School Committee and superintendent would knowingly stack classrooms at the start of the school year and expect teachers to accept money for overages,” TAN wrote in a statement after the vote.

The proposed labor contract included the flexibility to increase a class by three students, and compensate the teacher an additional $15 per day for each student over the current maximum. At the secondary level, which has a rotating schedule, teachers would be compensated $6 per day for each student that attends a one-hour class.

NEA Attorney Jennifer Azevedo, who made the case for the teachers during Monday’s session, previously told Newport This Week that TAN had agreed to the compensation structure only if students arrived after the start of school.

“We negotiated compensation for overages, contemplating kids that come in October or November. Obviously you aren’t going to open a new class then,” said Azevedo.

On Thursday, Oct. 15, TAN filed a complaint in Superior Court, asking that the extended health benefit plan, which provides health insurance for retired teachers until they reach the age of 65, be excluded from the arbitration process. The School Committee’s proposal eliminated benefits at age 65, which was the only other concession in their proposal outside of class size.

If there is a ratified agreement, the union said it would withdraw this complaint.

Although the parties were scheduled to enter into arbitration on Monday, they reached the agreement through mediation. The only modification to the most recent offer was language around class size, according to attorneys on both sides. The language has not been made public because the teachers have not reviewed the details, said Hole.

“Mediation is one of the processes in state law,” explained John Leidecker, deputy executive director of the National Teachers Association Rhode Island. “It’s a little different flavor than arbitration. There is a discussion with the parties, to work it out.”

John Harrington of the American Arbitration Association served as the mediator. If they entered arbitration, Harrington would collect testimony and evidence, and render a written decision. By resolving their differences through mediation, both parties have an opportunity to shape the final product, Leidecker explained. “It’s an involved process,” said Leidecker.

He described the general mood on Monday as that of “fatigue” by the end of the session.

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