Contract goes to teachers for vote
After more than two years of contract negotiations and tensions which multiple times came close to boiling over, the Warwick Teachers’ Union has a tentative agreement in front of them for a new collective bargaining agreement with the Warwick School Committee – and they have about a week to say yay or nay.
During their Tuesday night meeting the Warwick School Committee put forward a motion, unanimously approved, which accepted the terms of the tentative agreement. However, if the union does not approve, the motion dissolves.
“This motion is subject to and contingent upon the Warwick Teachers’ Union ratifying the final tentative agreement, dated Oct. 19, 2017, within 10 days from the date of this motion invoked,” explained School Committee chairwoman Beth Furtado.
“The ball is in our court,” acknowledged union president Darlene Netcoh during public comments.
Had that lengthy October meeting not resulted in a tentative agreement between the School Committee and the union, non-financial contract provisions would have been made binding by an independent arbitration award, which was ready to be presented by state-appointed arbitrator Michael Ryan. However the two sides struck a deal on their own accord before that was officially released and became binding.
The two sides in the mediation session did, however, have an advanced copy of what that award would look like, in order to give perspective into what language was on track to becoming binding and provide an impetus for the two sides to come to middle ground on issues which had been sticking points.
As a result the final, ratified contract is expected to largely reflect the provisions of the independent arbitration findings, with a few key amendments to areas of particular concern of the teachers. The 91-page arbitration findings were released on Tuesday in full for the review of the Warwick School Committee during the executive session of their meeting.
The arbitration findings, now a public document acquired by the Beacon, revealed that compromises had been achieved in the most crucial areas of negotiations – class size restrictions, allowable percentages of students with special needs, weighting for students with individualized education programs (IEPs) and salary raises.
Keep in mind that, while these findings were used as a reference by both sides in their final mediation meeting, the final ratified collective bargaining agreement will have some amended variations. Neither side is commenting on the finalized details of the possible new agreement.
“Both sides made an agreement back in the wee, A.M. hours of Oct. 19 to not speak about our agreement to the press, and both sides have upheld that agreement,” Netcoh said proactively during public comment at the School Committee meeting.
According to the arbitration findings in regards to class sizes, a majority of both sides were able to agree to eliminate the process of “weighting” of students with IEPs to count as equivalent to 1.5 or 2 students without IEPs (depending on the severity of the learning disability). They opted to set up a structure of “collaborative classes” instead to handle classrooms that combine students with and without IEPs.
The provisions of a collaborative class include the following: The number of special education students will not exceed 30 percent and, if that percentage must be exceeded, the teacher shall be provided additional compensation corresponding to the number of students it is exceeded by. The 30 percent limit will take effect the 2018/19 school year, and shall not apply to classes with 10 or fewer students enrolled in the class.
A collaborative class is defined in the language as, “…a core academic class that is taught by both a regular education content area teacher and a special education teacher. Both teachers shall be teachers of record for the entire roster of students of the collaborative class…Intensive Academic core classes shall be collaborative classes. Core classes are defined as Social Studies, Math, English and Science. Electives shall not be considered core classes…Supportive Academic core classes may be collaborative classes depending upon student need.”
The two sides agreed that schools shall aim for 25 students as an ideal class sizes. The parties agreed that 26 students would be the maximum. Should situations require a class to go above 26 students, the teacher will receive additional compensation corresponding to the number of students it is exceeded by. The same applies in Kindergarten classes, but for a maximum class size of 22.
In terms of salary, it was revealed that the last offer given by the union included 3 percent pay raises for both years the teachers went without a contract, and 3 percent for the three years of the new deal. The School Committee had offered over the summer a deal of no pay increase for 2015/16, a 2 percent increase for 2016/17, a 2.5 percent increase for 2017/18 and a 3 percent increase for 2018/19.
In the award, Ryan agreed with budget director Anthony Ferrucci in his cautioning strongly against appropriating surplus funds from a budget to go towards salary increases, and agreed that “it would be extremely unwise, and actually detrimental to the bargaining unit, to use money from the health insurance account to fund salaries.”
However Ryan writes, after much negotiating, “a majority of the panel has decided on a compromise between the parties’ most recent proposals. As the School Committee points out, Warwick salaries already compare favorably with most other Rhode Island school districts. The School Committee has not sought an increase in health insurance contributions, so the percentage increases are real, not illusory.”
The compromise includes no increase for 2015/16, a 2 percent increase for 2016/17 delayed for one half of the school year so that the teachers will receive an actual 1 percent retroactive raise through a reimbursement, a 3 percent increase for 2017/18, delayed three-quarters of the year so that teachers will receive an actual 2.25 percent raise through reimbursement and 3 percent salary increases for 2018/19 and 2019/20.
The findings also mentioned the sick leave policy, which was discussed but no final decision made via arbitration. The School Committee wanted to shave the 90 sick days down to 18 (with only 1.5 a month for new hires), and accruable to a maximum of 90 days, in addition to creating a sick bank for extended absences.
To these large potential changes, Ryan opted to stay out of it entirely.
“Interest arbitration is generally a conservative process, which disfavors the imposition of comprehensive changes and novel language,” he writes. “It is far better for the parties themselves to work out the details of such changes, because they are much more familiar with the situation than an outside neutral.”