2016-04-21 / Front Page

Contract To Hike Tax Rate

By Olga Enger

The Middletown Town Council has unanimously approved a three-year contract with the teachers union, but not before some councilors delivered a scolding to the School Committee.

“I am not pleased at all with what has transpired this past year,” council President Robert J. Sylvia said at the council meeting on Monday, April 18. After more than a year of tense negotiations with the School Committee, teachers voted “no confidence” in the School Committee and Superintendent Rosemarie Kraeger. Teachers also staged a “work to rule,” where they abided strictly by the minimum terms of the contract.

Council hoped to cap this year’s tax rate increase at two percent, but the teacher contract, which provides a four percent salary hike over the three years, will push up the town’s tax increase to 3.5 percent, said Sylvia. The contract is expected to cost $1.2 million more than previous years, which school officials say is largely due to the loss of impact aid after the state funding formula shifted more money to needier districts.

“I do not support some of the actions taken by the schools. I do not agree that technology is worth more investment than teachers. I do not believe the use of technology is producing better-educated students,” said Councilor Barbara VonVillas, referring to the controversial decision made by the School Committee to purchase $1 million in computers last year.

Sylvia said the money could have offset state aid reductions across multiple years, saving the taxpayers the burden of absorbing the difference.

“I don’t understand how a handful of people could think it was OK to spend $1 million of taxpayer money without at least having the courtesy and common decency to the residents of this town to at least vet it publicly. To bring it to the council, bring it to a public hearing,” said Sylvia. “Shame on them. Shame on every one of them.”

VonVillas believes the computer purchase was made with the intention of preparing students for standardized tests, not to improve education.

“What is to be achieved by integrating more technology into a setting that would show better results from more reading, writing and integrated discussion? Should our most important goal be that our students are more proficient at taking computerized tests so they can make us look better than others? Or do we want them to think critically so they can actually read and write intelligently?” said Von- Villas, who has been a teacher at the university level for 35 years.

Teachers had been working without a contract since Aug. 31, 2015. Town Council is required to approve all labor contracts after voters OK’d an amendment to the Town Charter in the 2012 election.

Sylvia added that Middletown was once in the position of insolvent towns such as Central Falls, North Providence and West Warwick.

“We were on the verge of bankruptcy. We were taking money that we were collecting at the beach and driving it to deposit to make payroll,” said Sylvia. He said the town is in a better financial position because of 10 years of discipline and careful planning.

School officials say despite the salary increase outlined in the contract, Middletown teachers are experiencing a downward trend in salaries relative to their colleagues across the state. They also claim there are higher savings through changes in the health care plan, which is transitioning to a high deductible 500/1000 plan. To help offset the cost to teachers, the district will pay a one-time stipend of $500 on a family plan and $250 for teachers on individual plans.

The agreement also adds one more workday, which will be utilized for professional development. Since the additional day is included in the gross salary, it drops the teachers’ per diem rate below Portsmouth’s daily rate, moving Middletown teachers closer to the statewide per diem. During the third year of the contract, teachers will work a total of 183 days and receive a one-time payment of $300 for the day.

The contract does not include teacher assistants.

School officials stated it would be “possible to achieve greater savings with longer negotiations and a willingness to sacrifice the cooperative management/labor relationship enjoyed in the district for the last several years,” in an executive summary. “In the end, the School Committee decided that this tentative agreement fairly serves the interest of all sides,” they wrote.

Despite the harsh words from some councilors, many separated the argument from the teachers.

“It was never about the teachers. We all believe it was never about the teachers,” said Councilor Henry Lombardi. Councilor Theresa Santos said she grew up in the Middletown district and was held back in the first grade because she didn’t speak English.

“I am approving this contract, even though many other seniors are hurting,” Santos said.

Councilor Paul Rodrigues said it was “time to move on.”

“We need to remember we are one. It doesn’t matter if you are the town side, the school side. We need to remain one,” said Rodrigues.

Council approved the contract in a 6-0 vote, with Councilor Antone Viveiros absent.

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