2018-03-15 / Around Town

Agreement Reached on Conference Schedule

11th Hour Decision After Conflicts and Confusion
By Brooke Constance White

After several days of confusion, Newport’s public schools committee and the local teachers’ union came to a last-minute agreement on March 12 to hold parent-teacher conferences from 1-6 p.m. on March 13-15, as opposed to meeting during normal school hours.

Conferences scheduled for March 13 at Rogers High School were canceled due to the snowstorm that day, but will be rescheduled for a date sometime in the near future, according to Newport School District administrators. The conferences at Pell Elementary School on March 14 took place as scheduled and conferences at Thompson Middle School for March 15 were expected to follow suit.

The scheduling issue, which stemmed from a disagreement last fall over the committee discontinuing certain benefits for teachers who retire early, was exacerbated over the past few weeks by threats from both sides and conflicting conference schedules released by the two groups.

The 213-teacher union, known as the Teachers Association of Newport (TAN), bought a newspaper advertisement in the Newport Daily News bringing the conflict into the public eye and adding to the confusion, according to David Hanos, chairman of the Newport School Committee.

“The full-page ad in the Daily spits in the face of the administration, defies [Newport Superintendent Colleen Jermain’s] directive and goes against everything the district has told parents about conferences,” Hanos said, referring to Jermain’s order that teachers hold conferences from 1-6 p.m. on the designated days.

“I truly feel for the parents and families,” he said. “The union is using our kids as pawns and it's extremely unfortunate that it’s come to this.”

Hanos said he received numerous messages from frustrated parents who didn’t know when parent-teacher conferences would take place because of the contradicting statements from TAN and the district administration.

On behalf of the union, TAN attorney Jennifer Azevedo paid for the ad, which ran in the March 10 issue of the Newport Daily News and stated that parent-teacher conferences would take place during normal school-day hours from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The ad said TAN’s decision to end the “past practice” of holding conferences outside of the normal school day hours was in response to the school committee’s decision to take away the “past practice” of providing dental and life insurance for teachers who retire before the age of 65.

While he was pleased that the groups reached a resolution, Hanos said the dispute could have been resolved last fall when the committee began discussing a deal with the union to resolve the disagreement. It was a similar offer to the one TAN accepted on March 12, according to Hanos.

“This should never have happened,” Hanos said, “and I want to apologize to the parents because I think this could have been settled months ago when we first put this deal on the table.”

While a deal has been reached, Azevedo told NTW on March 13 that TAN has only agreed to hold conferences from 1-6 p.m. until the end of this school year. The topic will likely come up again during future negotiations for new-teacher contracts, which will begin when the current contract expires in August 2018, she said.

“The deal is satisfactory,” Azevedo said. “It’s not everything we want but the school committee isn’t getting everything they wanted either.”

"I firmly believe that my role is to report to the Newport School Committee and work for the parents, students and families of Newport," Jermain said, adding that families of Newport students wanted the conferences held in the afternoon and early evening. "We wanted to make them as convenient as possible, so that all parents and guardians could talk about their children's education with the teachers."

Scheduling the conferences in the afternoon is not a new practice. According to school committee Vice-Chair Ray Gomes, parent-teacher conferences have been held after lunch to approximately 6 p.m. for more than 15 years, so that parents and caregivers working jobs during first shift from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., or second shift from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. are able to attend.

Students get the day off so instead of reporting to school at the start of the school day, teachers are asked to be at school at 12 p.m. and stay until 6 p.m.

Gomes said he’s not sure if it was the legal action that the district was threatening to take against the teachers that hastened the resolution, but that he was relieved that an agreement was reached.

“It came at the 11th hour and luckily we got a deal,” he said. “It’s a win-win for everybody and especially for the families and students in our district, and that’s what we’re all about.”

Hanos said that sometimes costs such as retiree benefits become too much of a financial burden on a school district and end up being eliminated.

“I’m a big union guy, but sometimes certain things like this just become too expensive,” Hanos said. “I’ve fought for these things in unions before, but we all have to understand that when it comes down to it, it’s about the dollar and whether or not certain benefits are becoming too financially difficult to provide.

“It’s bittersweet,” Hanos said of the agreement. “It should never have taken this long, but I’m just glad we got to this point.”

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