In another month, teachers and students will be preparing to return to school. The first day of class is Aug. 27, but teachers return earlier for orientation.
George Landrie wants to have a three-year teachers’ contract in place by then, but as of Friday the union still hasn’t received a written response to the notification to open talks they sent back in December. The new union president believes an agreement can be reached by then, and he feels it is critical to starting the school year on an upbeat note.
Asked on Wednesday for a contract status report, Superintendent Richard D’Agostino said the administration is working on a proposal. He offered no schedule for talks or whether he thinks an agreement can be reached by the end of August.
Landrie has felt the impact of strained contract relations. In 1992 he was one of the Warwick teachers who went to jail for striking when negotiations failed. And he also taught during a prolonged period of labor strife when teachers resorted to work to rule – refusing to attend events like open houses or writing college recommendations – in an effort to pressure an agreement. He doesn’t want to go through that again.
“I don’t want to go to the deadline. I don’t want to tell the membership they don’t have a contract,” he said.
But Landrie isn’t about to sacrifice principles or conditions deemed crucial for quality education. He feels the contract should take into consideration the added demands placed on teachers, especially elementary school teachers. This could be a money issue, but Landrie doesn’t believe it has to be. He said scheduling and release days could provide teachers the time to comply with a host of state requirements without having to lengthen the school year.
Yet money is sure to be a consideration.
Landrie finds mixed signals coming from the school committee and administration, as have the mayor and some council members.
“At one moment, they’re looking to make cuts and they have no money, and then they have a surplus and they’re making cuts…So which is it?”
The administration projected a surplus for the last fiscal year, which it took into account in drafting the current budget. When it closed out the year, however, the surplus was $1.3 million more than projected. The committee has not decided where to allocate those funds, even though the administration came up with a plan.
The budget does not include additional funding for teacher salaries, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be discussed.
While fire, police and municipal employees are in the third year of a no increase contract, teachers have received raises, the most recent being 1.5 percent.
In terms of salaries, Landrie said he would look at the salary steps of other systems and where Warwick is positioned. In round numbers, Landrie said starting pay of $40,000 is comparable to other systems. He put Warwick’s top step pay of $76,000 below other systems, where top pay is $80,000.
Landrie acknowledges that school enrollment, now less than 9,600, is declining. He sees no need to increase the number of layoffs the committee can make (40 notices and 20 layoffs under the current contract), saying reductions in staffing can be achieved through retirements.
“I would like there to be zero layoffs,” he said.
He is adamant that class sizes not be increased, saying that would impair the quality of education.
Landrie said pension reform “has been a real morale buster.” He pointed out that teachers contributed to the state system, believing the money would be there when they retired. Citing his own situation, Landrie said he was looking to receive about 75 percent of his pay on retirement, an amount that has been reduced to about 50 percent of his pay.
“[You expect] this is going to be at the end and it’s not there,” he said.
Landrie doesn’t know how negotiations might proceed, whether the School Committee will look to make changes in the current contract or start with a blank sheet.
Nor does Landrie have a feel for the School Committee other than what he got from attending meetings. He said he has seen some not so good committees and some better ones.
So far, he considers this to be a bit of a honeymoon. The relationship with the administration has been cordial, even if there’s been no response to open negotiations.
“I’m hoping for a new era of trust. Let’s get it [a contract] done,” he said.
And he’s somewhat frustrated, too.
“Things turn a lot slower on Warwick Avenue [the school administration office]. I’m not used to the slow pace,” he said.