2015-11-12 / Front Page

Teachers Challenge Council

By Olga Enger

Middletown teachers are claiming in court that the Town Council acted beyond its scope in rejecting a contract extension negotiated with the School Committee.

The council took the action on Sept. 21 consistent with a change to the Town Charter that was approved by Middletown voters with a 64 percent majority in 2012. Under the amendment, collective bargaining contracts “shall have no force or effect until and unless they are first ratified by a majority vote of the town council.”

Historically, the three-year contracts have been negotiated and ratified by the School Committee and the National Education Association Middletown (NEAM). This is the first teacher contract that has been negotiated since the charter was amended to require council signoff.

Earlier this month, the National Education Association (NEA) filed a suit challenging the council's action. The NEA claims that under state law, only the School Committee and the union have the authority to engage in collective bargaining.

In a four-page complaint filed in Providence County Superior Court, they request a “a declaration that collective bargaining agreements and/or memorandum of agreement between the School Committee and the union are valid and enforceable without Town Council approval and that the Town Council has no authority to reject an MOA and/or CBA ratified by the union and school.”

Town Council President Robert Sylvia called the suit “foolhardy” and that the council will “vigorously defend” the charter.

“The union thinks it can get more taxpayers’ money for its members if the Town Council does not serve as watchdog over the union’s negotiations with the School Committee,” wrote Sylvia in a letter to the press.

The most recent contract expired Aug. 31, 2015.

The school and union entered into negotiations in February, and after four months of talks, they entered into mediation. In August, the School Committee said they had made progress, but had not yet reached an agreement. To continue discussions, both parties reached a tentative agreement on a Memorandum of Agreement (“MOA”) to extend the current contract. Following the new charter language, the school brought it before the Town Council last month, which rejected the extension, leading to teacher protests.

In addition to the declaratory judgment, the suit requests injunctive and equitable relief which would permit the contract extension while negotiations continue, despite the council vote.

The defendants are the Town of Middletown, the School Committee, and the School Department.

“It is unfortunate that we, as a town and school district, are now forced to defend against this frivolous lawsuit, which only serves to waste our valuable taxpayer dollars,” Sylvia wrote.

The legal filing follows a contentious budget season, where committee members and councilors engaged in heated public debates before $144,000 of the school's requested allocation was denied. The town then launched an investigation into what was described as “financial irregularities” after the school purchased almost 1,100 laptop computers for $1 million.

Many School Committee members have expressed concern with communication and trust between Town Council and the committee.

“The council has no trust or confidence in what we do,” said School Committee Chair Theresa Silveira Spengler this summer. “I would like to see more trust.”

“There have been suggestions that the Town Council has been ‘meddling’ in the School Department’s negotiations with the teacher’s union. To set the record straight, that is simply untrue,” wrote Sylvia. “Under the charter, the School Committee continues to negotiate all contracts within the school department, and the Town Council has no role in the negotiation process, other than to hold a ratification vote on a final agreement.”

Proposed charter amendments follow a rigorous review and approval process at both the local and state level.

Before it was put on the ballot, town attorneys reviewed the proposal, according to the town clerk’s office. In the summer before the 2012 election, the council unanimously passed a resolution to include the proposed revision on the ballot “to ensure the bottom line” of the budget, according to the meeting notes.

Appearing as Question 13 on the ballot, 4,146 residents voted to approve and 2,315 voted to reject the proposal.

Once approved, the language was sent to the General Assembly for final review. There, committees and the Attorney General’s office were provided an opportunity to weigh in.

“The bills typically are approved by the committees and sent to the respective chamber's full body for a vote,” explained Sen. Louis Di- Palma, who represents District 12, which includes Middletown.

Finally, the governor’s signature is required to ratify the charter change.

Meanwhile, Rhode Island is looking into changing the way teacher contracts are negotiated in the future and is looking at the possibility of a statewide contract. An exploratory commission was formed as the result of legislation (2015-S 1027) sponsored by Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed (D-Dist. 13, Newport, Jamestown). The group met for the first time on Tuesday, Nov. 10.

“There are efficiencies that could be gained to potentially eliminate future issues. I don’t know if it would help Middletown or not, but it won’t hurt,” said DiPalma, who sits on the 11-member commission along with Newport School Committee Chair Jo Eva Gaines. The group's findings and recommendations are to be reported to the Senate by Feb. 1, 2016.

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