2015-11-12 / Opinion

Frivolous Teachers' Lawsuit Will Waste Money

To the Editor:

The Middletown teacher’s union hasfiled a lawsuit against the Town of Middletown and the Middletown School Committee. The union wants to reverse the Town Charter’s requirement that all labor contracts must be approved by the Town Council. This Charter provision was adopted by 66 percent of the voters just three years ago. The teachers’ union opposed this provision then. Now it is asking a judge to have the Charter declared void, despite the vote, and despite the legislature’s unanimous vote approving our Charter.

That amendment provides that “All collective bargaining agreements affecting employees of any department including but not limited to the School Department, shall have no force or effect until and unless they are first ratified by a majority vote of the Town Council.” It also prevents the Town Council from voting to ratify any contract until it has had a complete fiscal impact study on the proposed contract in its possession for at least seven days.

This Charter amendment provides the Town Council with an important tool to maintain and control the financial wellbeing of the town. It enables the town council to ensure that all town contracts, including those negotiated by the School Committee, are in the town’s best short- and longterm interests. Ratification provisions like the one approved by Middletown voters exist in other communities across Rhode Island, and they have been reviewed and uniformly upheld by our Supreme Court.

So what can the Middletown teachers’ union hope to accomplish by this foolhardy litigation? They will spend their members’ dues money, and cost Middletown’s taxpayers money. To what purpose?

The answer is quite obvious. 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. The Charter, however, is the law, and I intend to follow it, and for good reason.

In the recent five-year budget projection report submitted to the Rhode Island Department of Revenue, the town administrator and school superintendent estimated that with annual tax levy increases of two percent over the next three years, net revenues to the town may only increase from a projected $68.2 million to $69.0 million, an increase of $0.8 million or 1.2 percent.

The biggest cost in the budget is related to salaries and benefits, which equates to approximately 67 percent of town and school spending. For this reason alone, there is an expectation that negotiations will be comprehensive and will result in agreements that not only fit within these fiscal parameters, but that will further the interests of the departments they cover.

Since the voters adopted this Charter amendment, the Town Council has approved the following collective bargaining agreements that were successfully negotiated by the Town, the School and the Library, and their respective employees: IAFF (Fire Fighters/ Dispatchers), 07-01-2014 through 06-30-2017; IBPO (Police Officers), 07-01-2014 through 06- 30-2017; Teamsters (Public Works), 07-01-2014 through 06-30-2017; MMEA / NEARI (Town Hall), 07-01- 2015 through 06-30-2018; NEARI (Library), 07-01-2015 through 06/30/2018; and RI Council 94, AFSCME (School Custodians), 07-01- 2015 through 06-30-2018.

Each of these contracts met the long- and short-term goals set by this council, which, in turn, preserves jobs and enhances the services our employees provide to this community.

It is the Town Council that must levy taxes in the town. The School Committee spends money. It doesn’t have to raise money to pay its own bills. The Charter gives modest power to the council to put on the brakes by saying “yes” or “no” to an entire contract. This has produced fair, reasonable and fiscally responsible labor agreements across town. There is no good reason to exclude the teachers’ union, or any other group, from this requirement.

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. 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.

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. Rest assured, however, the Town Council intends to vigorously defend our Charter, and we will not succumb to these pressure tactics in our attempt to keep property taxes affordable for all Middletown residents.

Robert J. Sylvia
Middletown Town Council

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