2016-04-07 / Front Page

Teacher Contract Questioned

By Olga Enger

Although Middletown teachers and the School Committee broke through a yearlong impasse last month by reaching an agreement on a labor contract, some councilors are not celebrating.

Town Administrator Shawn Brown said the contract, which over three years will require $1.2 million in additional funds, would result in a 3.25 percent tax increase.

“I know it’s tough, trying to stretch a dollar, but in this contract, you’re asking for a four percent raise over three years,” said Councilor Antone Viveiros at the April 4 Town Council meeting held at the Middletown Fire Station. The raises would be applied in the second and third year of the contract.

“I understand the points Mr. Viveiros was making, but in the educational world, the increase is not extreme,” said school attorney Benjamin Scungio. He added if council decides not to ratify the contract, the next step would be arbitration, which is expensive and does not result in a binding decision.

Councilors will vote on the contract at the April 18 meeting, consistent with a 2012 Town Charter change that grants council the final approval of all labor contracts, including agreements reached between teachers and the School Committee. Under the new language, councilors must wait seven days after they receive a financial impact analysis for a vote.

“I don’t think any one of us sitting up here doesn’t know who makes the schools happen,” said Council President Robert Sylvia. “We all know it’s our teachers.”

He said council has to balance their responsibility to the taxpayers.

“In many conversations I’ve had with some disgruntled taxpayers, they never speak against the schools, but they just want to know why the schools have to get so much money, why they are always asking for more,” Sylvia said.

The previous contract expired Aug. 31, 2015. As negotiations stalled, the teachers voted “no confidence” in the School Committee and Superintendent Rosemarie Kraeger. They also staged a work to rule, where they work no more than the minimum contractually required. Despite the tentative agreement reached on March 18, the union has maintained work-to-rule, pending the council vote.

Middletown School Committee Chair Theresa Silveira Spengler said the school have eliminated up to 21 positions and reduced programing, but additional cuts would be “destructive” to the district.

“We can’t cut anymore,” said Spengler.

“I’m not pleased that we have to come up with this much extra money, for the reasons we have to come up with it for,” said Sylvia, referring to the school department’s $1 million laptop purchase, which spurred an investigation into the decision.

He turned the conversation to Brown, asking if there was a way to palliate the financial impact.

“How do we close this gap without a tax levy? How do we make this happen?” asked Sylvia. “One of my initial thoughts was the bonds, that’s a lot of money right there. But we need the bonds. Especially the $10 million bonds for our school.”

Council has approved two bonds to appear on the November ballot: a $5 million road repair bond and a $10 million school facilities bond.

Brown said a tax increase is unavoidable unless there were cuts to other programs.

“The budget this year is extremely aggressive,” said Brown. “The council has asked it to be limited to two percent. We have put forward two bond proposals. Which again, the council has asked me, more than once, to propose a program that would not impact taxes.”

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. The decision resulted in teacher protests in front of Town Hall and a lawsuit filed by the NEA.

“This has been a long and hard process for all of us,” said Sylvia. “This new Charter, where we have to ratify contracts, is new for us as well. We have virtually nothing to do with anything, except appropriate the money and sign on a contract that has been presented.”

Aquidneck Elementary School teacher Anne Coogan urged council to ratify the contract so teachers could move on, pointing out that both sides were forced to compromise.

“Is it a great contract? No. Is it the contract of our dreams? Hardly,” said Coogan.

“It seems like our teachers have been political pawns in which no one has benefited, least of all our teachers. They deserve better,” said retired teacher Mary Clark.

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