Ending more than two years of acrimony and divisive debate over what is best for the education of Warwick children, the Warwick Teachers Union approved a contract Tuesday evening giving teachers a 2 percent retroactive pay raise for a portion of last year and 3 percent raises this year and for the next two years. Teachers also get to retain 90 sick days.
On the city side, the contract eliminates a system implemented more than 20 years ago of weighting special needs students as more than one student in determining class size and a multitude of language issues from giving teachers preference for coaching positions to the elimination of seniority as the criteria for teaching preferences. Many of the contract changes closely follow the findings of arbitrator Michael Ryan, who in the course of two years presided over scores of hearings where elements of the prior contract were discussed by both parties.
Setting the stage for the protracted dispute, unlike prior years and faced with consolidation of secondary schools, the School Committee and administration refused to recognize the terms of the expired contract until a new agreement was reached. The union argued a Labor Relations Board ruling made more than a decade earlier required the district to abide by the terms of the expired agreement. The Committee challenged the ruling in court and won.
On another level, the Committee abandoned negotiations and moved into mediation. Even that came apart when School Committee Chair Bethany Furtado termed the process a waste of time and ended the sessions about a year ago. Mediation resumed in January with Mayor Scott Avedisian serving as a facilitator to attorney and mediator Vincent Ragosta.
“I’m thrilled that it [the contract] has been ratified,” Avedisian said Wednesday. “Obviously it has been a very long process.” He thanked those who continued to come to the table and in particular Ragosta who, he said, “really focused on how to reach consensus.”
Avedisian termed arbitration “unwieldy,” adding that he intends to look at legislation in other states to set strict deadlines with penalties on when negotiations must start and results.
School Committee member Karen Bachus, who aligned herself with the teachers, called the end of the contract dispute “a great thing for Warwick,” although she is less than happy with the terms of the agreement.
She said teachers gave up a lot of language, a result of the arbitration, as well as individual and group grievances.
“Class size was the major sticking point. It was their major concern...that effects teaching and learning and effects everything,” Bachus said.
She said the union sought to limit the number of students with an IEP [individual education program] to 25 percent of a class. The arbitration award was for 30 percent, which is still a reduction from many existing class ratios. According to data provided by the superintendent’s office, about 14 percent of secondary school classes exceed that 30 percent threshold.
“We have some absolutely superb educators in this city and I know they've been working very hard in these years without a contract and hopefully we can all move on and there will be peace and everybody will get what they need,” Bachus said.
Union President Darlene Netcoh was hesitant to detail specifics of the agreement until they had been finalized. She said a “majority” of members voted to ratify the agreement.
“I am looking forward to labor peace. All the teachers have wanted is a successor collective bargaining agreement. We've seen what the past two years have brought. We have a contract now, it's a contract between two parties and I'm just hopeful that moving forward the union can reestablish a working relationship with central administration and the school committee,” she said in a statement.
Superintendent Philip Thornton said in a statement released Wednesday afternoon, “We are very happy to have a finalized agreement. Going forward, we are pleased with the educational steps that this contract will bring.”
School Committee chair Bethany Furtado was hopeful that labor peace would enable the union and the administration to work collaboratively. “It’s all about the education and the best we can give them [students],” she said.
While seemingly a contract offers the opportunity for harmony and cooperation between the administration and teachers, the school administration faces a new challenge in funding the agreement, requiring an additional $4.6 million this fiscal year.
In presenting its budget request last spring to the City Council, the School Committee included $3.3 million for increased salaries based on the assumption teachers would get a 3 percent pay increase this year. But, as there was no agreement, the council cut the money from the budget with the pledge it would be forthcoming with a contract.
Now the committee will come back to the council for the $3.3 million plus $1.3 million more.
Whatever amount is agreed upon will presumably come out of the city’s unrestricted reserves.
For as much as council members are pleased there is finally a contract, fully funding it doesn’t look to be an easy sell.
Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur, chair of the City Council finance committee, accused the school administration of failing to prepare for a contract, although he agreed if schools had requested more than $3.3 million it could have sent the wrong signal during negotiations.
“If I was in a poker game, I wouldn’t want to show all my cards,” he said.
Ladouceur feels schools can come up with any shortfall beyond an additional $3.3 million.
“They’re going to have to figure it out,” he said. “I think they have the money.”
“I’m not a believer of throwing money to fix a problem. It’s not going to fix poor management,” he said.
Ladouceur said he moved to Warwick as a young family because he could get the most house for the least money and for the school system. He feels the city has lost both attributes. Taxes have pushed up the cost of homeownership and the school system has suffered from the lack of proper management, he said.
“The cost of [school] administration is out of control. I think it needs a complete overhaul,” he said.