2015-10-29 / Front Page

Teachers Ratify Contract

By Olga Enger

A heated negotiation process over a labor contract came to a close on the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 28, when 200 members of the Newport Teachers Association (TAN) voted to ratify an agreement with the School Committee.

Although specifics about the contract were not yet disclosed, 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. The proposal also included the flexibility to increase a class size 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. The only concession other than class sizes was the elimination of extended health care benefits at age 65.

The tentative agreement only changed compliance language around class sizes, according to the School Committee's attorney Attorney Mary Ann Carroll.

Class size had been a sticking point throughout the negotiation process. The School Committee asked for the flexibility to increase sizes in some circumstances, in exchange for teacher compensation, but teachers asserted the increases would hinder education.

“This decision does not mean that TAN agrees with or likes the class size language the School Committee and superintendent have forced on us,” TAN representatives issued in a statement after the vote.

TAN did not release the final vote count.

“We see this new language as ripe for abuse if the teachers and parents are not diligent in holding the School Committee and superintendent accountable to do what is best for the children of Newport,” said TAN representatives. The association added the superintendent and School Committee “are attempting to balance the school department budget on the backs of the students and teachers in Newport.”

Also during Wednesday’s meeting, TAN voted “no confidence” in Superintendent Colleen Jermain and the School Committee. The union previously cast a no confidence vote in Jermain in August.

“I'm happy that it was ratified,” said Jermain. “But I’m disappointed to hear that the no confidence vote was taken. I look forward to sitting down with teachers and working toward building a positive relationship. I’m confident we can address their concerns and move forward. I look forward to doing that with them and I’m certain we can bring the school system to the next level.”

Days before the negotiating teams entered into mediation on Oct. 19, TAN members overwhelmingly rejected the School Committee’s “last, best contract offer” by a vote of 115 to 32. After meeting all day without break in mediation, both sides came to the tentative agreement, which was brought to TAN membership for Wednesday's final vote.

Pell teacher and TAN’s Vice Chair Jennifer Hole recently told Newport This Week s he f elt “ bullied” into the agreement in order to protect teacher benefits, which could be in jeopardy if the parties entered arbitration.

“There are parts of the agreement that I strongly agree with,” said Hole. “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 most recent contract capped classes at 24 students for elementary and middle schools and at 25 students at the high school level. Any class over 16 students requires a teacher’s aide. If any class went over these levels, the district was contractually obligated to open a new class.

This school year, for example, the district opened an additional third-grade class due to an overage of four students. The School Committee argued that practice is cost prohibitive in some circumstances.

“The teachers are furious that the 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 previous release.

NEA attorney Jennifer Azevedo, who made the case for the teachers during the mediation 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.

TAN's Superior Court complaint regarding health benefits will be withdrawn now that an agreement has been reached.

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