Sometimes things are better left untouched, although they seemingly could be improved.
School Committee member Eugene Nadeau didn’t see it that way when the opportunity arose to extend the Warwick Independent School Employees (WISE) contract. The WISE union, which is a local of Council 94 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, represents 380 non-teacher school employees. This includes clerks, teacher aides and custodians, among others.
The union has an agreement with Warwick schools that won’t expire until this August. It wasn’t reached without tribulation or union member sacrifice.
Turning back the clock, the school administration concluded it could save about $2 million if it retired its aging fleet of special education buses and contracted to have the service provided. To do it, however, the administration needed to reach an agreement that recognized the elimination of those jobs. WISE wasn’t about to do that and thus began a standoff that lasted nearly six years.
During that time, schools went ahead with phasing out the special education buses. WISE salaries remained frozen and, for an extended period, employees continued to have the full cost of their health care covered, even though teachers and administrators went to a 20 percent co-payment in separate contracts.
The situation didn’t make for good relations, but that changed when the parties reached the current agreement, although unquestionably there had to be latent hard feelings.
So, as School Committee Chair Bethany Furtado explained Tuesday night, when the union offered to extend its contract for another two years, she was interested. The only item the union wanted to negotiate was pay.
Talks progressed quickly and, in a couple of weeks, the sides had agreed to a 1.5 percent pay increase as of this August and another 1 percent in August 2014. The increases are in line with those for teachers and are projected to cost an additional $437,501 over the two years.
Nadeau saw the agreement as a missed opportunity to address other issues, such as impacting the department’s ability to reward those who work hard and, in his opinion, also bringing benefits more in line with those in the private sector. Had he been at the bargaining table, he would have sought to replace the word “seniority” with the words “most qualified”; eliminated longevity pay; and reduced the number of carryover sick days, among other changes.
Nadeau wasn’t included in the contract talks and did not learn about them until they were virtually completed. Rightfully, he is critical of the fact that he and other committee members were not informed of developments at the same time when Furtado learned of them.
That said, we think the administration chose the right course.
With privatization of the bus service and closing of schools, about 70 workers have been thinned from WISE ranks. Surely, this remains a touchy issue among the members and to suggest major changes, such as Nadeau proposed, would have triggered heated and, most likely, divisive debate.
Nadeau is right; schools must look at ways to reduce costs and they must face the reality that the school population is declining. But in this instance, Nadeau’s issues are best left for another day.
Labor peace for the next two years will be welcome as the department considers the closing of a junior high school, possibly as soon as this year, and perhaps shuttering a high school next year.