Teacher contract negotiations at impasse

GEA Head Carol Sutton brought the union's case directly to the public –Ken Borsuk

GEA Head Carol Sutton brought the union’s case directly to the public –Ken Borsuk

As negotiations stall toward a new labor contract between the town and public school teachers, members and supporters of the Greenwich Education Association (GEA) brought their case directly to the public last week.

At the first Board of Education meeting of the new school year on Aug. 28, Carol Sutton, president of the GEA, urged the public to show support for teachers while trying to push the board toward a more favorable deal in an effort to avoid having to go to arbitration. Currently the discussions are at a standstill between the GEA, which serves as the town’s teachers union, and the Board of Education’s Negotiations Committee and this was the first public show of dissatisfaction with the current status of those negotiations.

Negotiations on a new contract took place over the summer but a deal could not be reached. According to Board of Education member Peter Sherr, chairman of the negotiations committee, not reaching a deal right away is not unusual during labor talks. However, the second step of the process, where a mediator is brought in to try and bridge the gaps between the sides also failed to reach a deal, which is not keeping with the history of recent contract negotiations with the GEA. The third step is bringing in the outside arbitrators, which both sides say they want to avoid.

Only Ms. Sutton spoke at the Aug. 28 meeting during time reserved for remarks from the GEA, but dozens of members attended and stood in solidarity with the union head as she pressed the board to come to terms. She noted that teachers would be working diligently to help all their students as the new initiative for digital learning and efforts to improve student performance on new state standardized tests continue against the backdrop of a “contentious” race for governor with “implications for education.” She said that with all of this already happening she did not want there to be the “specter of contract arbitration looming.”

Ms. Sutton said it was “in no one’s interest” to go any further down a path toward arbitration. She recalled her own remarks to the Board of Education in June before the summer break where she said she was looking forward to an “open and respectful” negotiation with the board’s committee because they both wanted the same thing, which was to attract, retain, sustain and reward quality teachers.

“Since then we have certainly had many hours of open, respectful and, at times, difficult conversations,” Ms. Sutton said. “Both sides have learned a lot about the vision of education they share and about the distinct lenses by which they see a contract.”

Ms. Sutton added that the teachers standing with her, many of whom were wearing red to support public education, were at the meeting instead of working on lesson plans for the next day or spending time with their families because a deal had not been reached and they wanted to avoid going to arbitration. Ms. Sutton termed a deal with the town as being “very close” but without the final agreement, arbitration exists as a very real possibility.

“Let’s come together to reach a voluntary agreement so we can get on with our work,” Ms. Sutton told the board. “I believe we can get there working together.”

In her remarks, Ms. Sutton repeatedly stressed that the GEA wanted a voluntary agreement and she explained the reasoning both to the board and the members of the public attending the meeting at Hamilton Avenue School. She called Greenwich teachers “the hardest working professionals you will find anywhere” working “countless hours beyond their contractual agreements.”

“A voluntary agreement sends a message that Greenwich is a community that values local control of public education,” Ms. Sutton said. “We are a community in which stakeholders regularly work together to address issues and we pride ourselves on doing so independently, without outside intervention. The GEA and the [Greenwich Public Schools] administration have built a trusted relationship over time. In fact, [Superintendent of Schools] William McKersie introduced me at the convocation as a trusted colleague. How many superintendents can do that? We are too close to let arbitration drive a wedge between us.”

Ms. Sutton added that she hoped that the voluntary agreement would also be “generous” in terms of salary and in health benefits that were “strong on prevention and preserved a modicum of choice.” She said that would show Greenwich valued its teachers “and cares for their personal and professional well-being” while noting how few teachers could afford to live in town. She urged the board to not see teacher salaries and health benefits as costs, but rather as investments that would pay off down the line with better prepared students.

“If we value our students, we must invest in the teachers by reaching a voluntary agreement,” Ms. Sutton said.

Due to the ongoing negotiations, Mr. Sherr, chairman of the negotiations committee, was limited in what he could say about the specific issues creating the impasse when reached by the Post for comment this week. However, he did say that he had received a lot of response from people since last week’s meeting who were “puzzled” by what was said. While he said there could be debate about how well teachers are paid in the country, that perception was not true in Greenwich where he says there are high salaries and excellent benefits.

“Teachers in Greenwich are well compensated,” Mr. Sherr said. “They enjoy some of the best total compensation in the state. It is the Board of Education’s objective to continue to maintain a most competitive wage and benefit package so we can continue to retain and attract the most qualified teachers possible for the Greenwich Public Schools.”

Meetings have been set for this week with arbitrators and it’s expected that a schedule will be determined at that time. Mr. Sherr said that the board was just as eager to avoid arbitration as the GEA was.

“The Board of Education continues to make proposals to the GEA,” Mr. Sherr said. “Our point of view is that it’s better if we can get an agreement between the sides without outside influence. That would be the best outcome.”

If a deal is reached between the committee and the GEA it would then have to be approved by the full board. An approval there would send it to the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) and ultimately to the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) for the final approval. The negotiations committee also includes board Vice Chairman Jennifer Dayton and board member Peter Bernstein. BET Chairman Michael Mason also participates as a non-voting member along with BET member Mary Lee Kiernan.

[email protected]

By participating in the comments section of this site you are agreeing to our Privacy Policy and User Agreement

© Hersam Acorn. All rights reserved. The Greenwich Post, 10 Corbin Drive, Floor 3, Darien, CT 06820

Designed by WPSHOWER

Powered by WordPress