Teacher contract talks start under cloak of silence
With less than a month to the first day of school, and the last day of a teacher contract, the Warwick Teachers Union and the School Committee have entered into contract negotiations.
So far, that’s the only news either of the parties will confirm. Earlier this week, Rosemary Healey, director of human resources and legal counsel to the committee, said that both sides have agreed to a news blackout for the talks. This includes information about the frequency of the talks; any progress on reaching an agreement; and, in fact, who is actually at the table.
“The School Committee, the administration as well as the Teachers’ Union have all collectively agreed to answer ‘no comment’ to any inquiries on the contract negotiations,” said Healey.
George Landrie, union president, did not return calls.
Just last week, Landrie said the union had not been contacted, although it sent a letter to the committee in December saying the current contract would expire on Aug. 31. While Landrie said time is running out for a new contract to be in place, he believed an agreement is possible by the start of school.
If what Landrie said last week is still applicable, the union is expected to fight any effort to increase classroom size. In addition, Landrie said he would seek a three-year agreement and for parity with other districts on top-step pay. Teacher starting pay at $40,000, he said, is comparable to other districts.
While the current contract allows for the committee to notify 40 teachers of layoffs, but layoff no more than 20 in a year, Landrie thought the district’s ability to respond to declining enrollment could be achieved through retirements. Landrie is also expected to fiercely protect programs and, in light of a larger surplus than expected, suggested the committee restore programs that it cut, such as the Accelerated Learning Activities Program (ALAP).
Warwick teachers and the committee have a rocky history of contract negotiations, although in recent years there has not been the sort of strife that followed the 1992 teacher strike when Landrie, among others, was jailed because teacher strikes are illegal. Teachers continued to work under the terms of the former contract, but the arrangement was less than agreeable. Many teachers chose to “work to rule,” refusing to attend open houses, write college recommendations and perform other tasks not specified in the pact. Memories of the divisive nature of that situation have served as motivation to get a contract in place before the current agreement expires.
Money, or the lack of it, could be problematic.
The committee made no budget provision for pay increases. This is not extraordinary, as budgeting for an increase in salaries would send a clear message to the union of where they expect to end up.
Schools got a $400,000 boost in its budget from the City Council that refused to go along with Mayor Scott Avedisian’s $158.4 million school budget for level-funded schools. And while the department projected a surplus for the last fiscal year, it turned out to be more. The committee has not “reseeded” $1.38 million, as the school administration advised, meaning, at this point, it is unencumbered.
On the city side, municipal employees, fire and police are entering the third year of three-year no-raise contracts. The freeze in wages has dramatically reduced the unfunded pension liability of fire and police, as retiree increases are linked to the pay increases of active members of the force.
In an expression of gratitude, and to avert the wage re-opener clause of the third year of the agreement, Avedisian budgeted $800,000 to give all city employees a $1,000 bonus. That bonus has not been paid. The administration and the unions are silent on the matter, but it is believed the firefighters have not signed off on re-opening wages.