Teachers approve new contract with town; arbitration avoided

classroomA week after Greenwich’s teachers took their dissatisfaction with contract negotiations public, a deal was struck preventing the need for a binding arbitration both sides said they wanted to avoid.

The deal was announced at last Thursday’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 a Thursday afternoon vote from the GEA when 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% 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, which will have representation from the district administration and the GEA, is set to deliver recommendations to the district and the board by March 2015. Peter Sherr, chairman of the Board of Education’s Negotiations Committee, said he was eager to see the recommendations because it would allow for continued improvements on teaching and learning in the district with a focus on student achievement.

The agreement came about last 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. Mr. Sherr 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 think that’s what happened here. I don’t mean to sound flip 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 with the short notice. All GEA members were sent an electronic copy of the agreement last 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 insurance programs, 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 and not make major changes right now.

“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.

Ms. Sutton said the GEA had not gone in looking for a two-year agreement and that it preferred the three-year deal. But said that the reason for the two-year deal was “legitimate” and predicted most municipalities negotiating labor deals this year would end up reaching the same kind of agreement. Ms. Sutton said the members were “very comfortable” with the insurance agreement in this new deal with little change from what is in the current contract.

“We consider that a real plus for our members because in the health care arena we will have certainty,” Ms. Sutton said. “Even as the nation has uncertainty we feel we struck a positive deal with the board that gives us some certainty over the next two years.”

The agreement came a week after Ms. Sutton went public with the union’s dissatisfaction over negotiations, which had come to 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.

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 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. It was never publicly revealed what exactly had caused the impasse but several reports have focused on a disagreement over health care coverage under the contract.

But whatever disagreements there had been were set aside with the new contract. Mr. Sherr thanked the GEA for its “collaboration and the thoughtful manner with which it deliberated on the contract.”

“We’re pleased we were able to reach this agreement together without the involvement of an outside arbitrator and can continue to maintain the excellent relationship that exists between all of our teachers and the Board of Education,” Mr. Sherr said.

Calling it a “relief” to have the agreement in place, Ms. Sutton said she believed that had there been more time in the state-mandated process for the negotiations the two sides could have struck this deal without having to fear arbitration. The timetable is set by state law, which she hoped would be changed in the future along with other modernizations to the process.

At last week’s work session, board member Laura Erickson initially expressed reservations about voting on the contract because the board had not had sufficient time to review it, having only received it hours before the meeting. 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.

“I would really hope that we could send the signal that after a very good negotiation, one that did have some tough points, everyone is coming together,” Dr. McKersie said. “I think the staff needs that signal.”

Mr. Sherr said there was nothing in the contract that wasn’t consistent with what had been discussed with board members prior to the agreement. Dr. McKersie added that he hoped to see this approved quickly because of the impact it has on the work being done by him and his staff in creating the 2015-16 school budget.

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

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