2016-01-28 / Front Page

Teachers File for Arbitration

By Olga Enger

After a year of negotiations, Middletown teachers are still “very far off” from reaching an agreement on their labor contract, according to their lawyers.

“There isn’t just one sticking point,” said Jennifer Azevedo, assistant executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, which represents the union of 100 Middletown teachers. “There are literally five or six issues that separate us. It’s not just about salary, but salary is obviously one of them.”

The union recently filed for arbitration.

“The sticking points are of course financial,” Middletown Superintendent Rosemarie Kraeger told Newport This Week. “Salary increases and health care.” She added the committee is negotiating under tight financial constraints, due to decreased funding from the state and a projected two percent increase from the town.

In a move that Azevedo said was intended to “send a message” to the public, a majority of the teachers has voted “no confidence” in Kraeger, renewing a 2001 vote that was never withdrawn. The membership also voted “no confidence” in the Middletown School Committee.

“It’s a negotiating tactic, which has been used in other communities,” Kraeger said. Last year, the Newport teachers’ union also voted “no confidence” in the superintendent and School Committee during labor negotiations.

“The teachers don’t feel supported by the superintendent or the committee,” said Azevedo. “They are not being heard. It’s taken almost a year and there is no movement. We have met several times. The teachers are really frustrated.”

The committee began negotiations with teachers last February, and entered into mediation four months later. Now, almost a year later, little progress has been made.

Kraeger added that notwithstanding some progress that had been made, all the issues were put back on the table once the union filed for arbitration.

“Realistically we were down to a few items,” she said.

Teachers have been working without a contract since Sept. 1, 2015.

After talks stalled in the fall, the Town Council rejected a tentative agreement reached by the union and School Committee to extend the existing contract for six months while negotiations continued. Council members claimed the extension was intended to disrupt the budget process. The decision resulted in teacher protests in front of Town Hall and a lawsuit filed by the NEA.

Council voted on the extension consistent with a new charter amendment that requires council approval for collective bargaining contracts. The lawsuit claims the change violates state law. The town recently filed a motion to dismiss the case, but a hearing is scheduled in Providence Superior Court on April 12.

The last budget process saw heated debate between committee members and councilors after the council cut $144,000 from the district’s requested allocation of around $38 million. The relationship was further strained after council voted to investigate a $1 million purchase of laptops for staff and students.

Despite the frustrations, both union and school officials hope to continue talks and avoid arbitration.

“That is always the hope, that we continue talking,” said Kraeger.

“Hopefully we can avoid arbitration and reach an agreement. But at this point we are far apart. We were making some progress with the previous mediator,” said Azevedo.

The current mediator is Providence attorney Vincent Ragosta.

Districts across the state negotiate individual contracts every three years, which is often an expensive and prolonged process and restricts teacher mobility between districts. Rhode Island lawmakers are investigating the option of a statewide teacher contract. An exploratory commission was formed last year through legislation (2015- S 1027) sponsored by state Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed.

A date for arbitration between Middletown teachers and the district has not been set.

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