2016-03-24 / Around Town

Tentative Agreement Reached with Teachers

By Olga Enger

Middletown parents and educators gather on March 17 at the Oliphant administration building in support of teachers in their ongoing contract negotiations. 
(Photo by Olga Enger) Middletown parents and educators gather on March 17 at the Oliphant administration building in support of teachers in their ongoing contract negotiations. (Photo by Olga Enger) After protests, student pleas and over a year of negotiations, the members of National Education Association Middletown (NEAM) and the Middletown School Committee have reached agreement on a new labor contract. The three-year contract is pending Town Council approval.

“After negotiating for 13 very long months, we have successfully reached an agreement between NEAM and the School Committee,” said NEAM president Lisa Wood. “Our next and hopefully final hurdle is the Town Council ratification.”

The teachers voted on the contract in a meeting held at the Middletown High School on Tuesday, March 22. The School Committee later approved the agreement by a 4-1 vote, with William O’Connell opposed. O’Connell said he would not support raises until changes were made to the state funding formula.

The contract includes no raise for year one, and a two percent raise for top-step teachers in the second year. The third year will bring two raises for all teachers: a 1.65 percent increase, plus .35 percent on the last day of the school year. The contract adds two personal development days across the three-year contract.

Under the tentative agreement, retiree cost share jumps to 20 percent for those retiring after August 31, 2018, up from 12 percent for those retiring after June 30, 2017. Insurance deductibles also will increase for both individual and family plans, as the union moves from the 250/500 Blue Cross plan to the 500/1000 plan.

“At no time did the School Committee ever feel that our teachers didn’t deserve a fair and equitable contract,” said School Committee Chair Theresa Silveira Spengler. The previous labor contract expired on Aug. 31, 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.

In January, NEA lawyers told Newport This Week they were still “very far off” from reaching a contract and voted “no confidence” in Superintendent Rosemarie Kraeger and the School Committee. At that time, the union also voted to work under “contract compliance,” also called “work-to-rule.” Under that scenario, teachers work under the minimum guidelines established by the contract, and will usually not stay after school to help students with homework, senior projects or extracurricular activities.

Earlier this month, two students urged members of Town Council to reach an agreement with teachers. “We are suffering due to the lack of a contract,” said Middletown High School student Morgan Rice, speaking at the March 7 council meeting. She noted that teachers often spend their nights, weekends, and vacations at student sporting events or extracurricular activities, in addition to the thousands of hours spent each year in the classroom. “Look at who this problem is really impacting – the kids,” said Rice.

The last time the negotiating team met was for nine hours on March 17. Toward the end of the session, parents and teachers gathered in the parking lot of the Oliphant administration building holding signs in support of the teachers, shouting, “What do we want? A contract! When do we want it? Now!”

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 continue to investigate 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.

The Middletown contract is pending council approval, consistent with a 2012 Town Charter change that requires the council to vote on all labor contracts, including those of the schools.

The next Town Council meeting is scheduled for April 4.

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