Teachers, town reach agreement on new contract

Just a week after Greenwich’s teachers took their dissatisfaction with contract negotiations public, a deal has been reached before binding arbitration had to begin.

The deal was announced at Thursday night’s Board of Education work session where the board unanimously approved a new two-year labor contract with the Greenwich Education Association (GEA), which serves as the labor union for Greenwich’s teachers. That followed an afternoon vote from the GEA where the contract was also approved. This is not the end of the road for a deal though as it must ultimately be approved by the Representative Town Meeting (RTM).

Under the proposed contract, the contract provides for a General Wage Increase (GWI) of 0.68% in fiscal year 2016 and 0.88% raise in fiscal year 2017, plus a reinstated “Step” increase based on increasing levels of experience. There are no major changes to health care coverage in the contract which had been a sticking point in the negotiations. One feature of the deal that both sides pointed to as a positive was the creation of a special committee that will be tasked with making recommendations to “optimize and maximize direct teaching time and professional collaboration in order to increase student achievement.” That committee is set to deliver recommendations to the district and the board by March 2015.

The agreement came about on Tuesday night but it took the next few days for it to be reviewed and so the board could approve it at a publicly noticed meeting, as the work session was. Both sides spoke to the Post and said they were satisfied with the deal. Peter Sherr, chairman of the Board of Education’s Negotiations Committee, said that he believed it was a good deal for the teachers, a good deal for the board and a good deal for Greenwich taxpayers. Carol Sutton, executive director of the GEA, said that while there were still issues that not everyone was pleased with it represented a compromise that satisfied the union.

“With many contracts if neither side is completely satisfied it means you reached some compromises that will work,” Ms. Sutton said. “I don’t mean to be flip and I’m not when I say that not everyone is doing the happy dance but we did avoid arbitration and we did make some commitments to continue to work together productively. That sends a good signal to our members, to the administration and to the community.”

Ms. Sutton said the agreement passed by a 193-17 margin, meaning less than 25% of the approximately 900 members of the GEA actually voted on it. But, given the last minute nature of the deal because of the timetable they faced to get a deal done before arbitration began, Ms. Sutton said she was satisfied with the vote total even with the short notice. All GEA members were sent an electronic copy of the agreement on Wednesday, giving them 24 hours to review it before the vote.

The most unusual part of the agreement is that it is for two years instead of the standard three for labor deals which is the length of the current contract the GEA has with the town. At the heart of this was uncertainty over the impact the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will have on health care costs, particularly with a proposed tax scheduled to hit employers who offer certain high end health plans, something Mr. Sherr and others have referred to as the “Cadillac tax.” Because of that, the two sides agreed that it was better to wait two years to see what the situation was before entering into further negotiations.

“Both parties would have preferred a longer contract, however, the uncertainties in planning for the long term made a two-year agreement the best path forward,” Mr. Sherr said.

The agreement came a week after Ms. Sutton went public with the union’s dissatisfaction over negotiations, which had fallen into a standstill. Ms. Sutton spoke at the board’s Aug. 28 meeting, the first one of the new school year, with dozens of GEA members standing with her. She urged the board to work toward a deal so they could avoid binding arbitration, something both sides said they didn’t want.

Negotiations on a new labor contract began over the summer and while it was not unusual for a deal to not be immediately reached, concern grew when bringing in a mediator also failed. Labor deals in town are traditionally struck with the help of a mediator but this one could not foster an agreement and the next step was the arbitration, which would have seen a decision imposed on Greenwich rather than the sides coming to an agreement. Both the GEA and the board said they didn’t want that and this week negotiations resumed, leading to Thursday’s deal.

Board member Laura Erickson initially expressed reservations about voting on the contract because the board had not had sufficient time to review it. However, Superintendent of Schools William McKersie as well as Mr. Sherr and other board members felt that it was in the best interest to approve the contract Thursday night to send a message that everyone was on the same page. Mr. Sherr said there was nothing in the contract that had not been discussed with board members prior to the agreement.

The RTM is likely to vote on the contract at its October meeting.

The Post will have additional coverage in its Sept. 11 edition.

 

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