School Committee letter sends direct message (updated)

Posted by Jeremy Shulkin

Yesterday evening the Worcester School Committee, in the midst of a year-and-a-half-long contract negotiation period with the teachers union (Educational Association of Worcester), sent out a pointed letter that essentially says “We’ve been rational, but the union hasn’t.” (My quotes, not theirs.)

The nearly 900-word letter doesn’t mince words in placing blame on the EAW for the “broken down” negotiations, and corners the “we’ve tried everything and they’re the ones being unreasonable” angle. (The second set of quotes are mine again, not theirs.)

“It should be noted that the EAW initially introduced approximately one hundred (100) proposals for changes to the current collective bargaining agreement, many of which have financial costs associated with them,” reads the letter. “In contrast, the School Committee’s proposals total 26, a number of which seek merely to extend agreements already in place between the Parties but which have expired with the prior contract.”

The committee points out that the major hang up between them, the EAW and a new contract, is still the union’s refusal to have WPS teachers pay 25% of their healthcare premiums like most other municipal unions. Teachers hired after July 1, 2006 already pay 25%. Longer-tenured educators currently pay 20%. The EAW is also seeking an 8.5% pay increase over three years.

The School Committee also calls the EAW’s ideas to use one time money from the airport sale for the raise “without any real merit” because those increases would be recurring expenses, and one-time money doesn’t grow on trees, as the saying goes.

“70% of it is accurate,” says EAW head Lenny Zalaskus, but he says they’ve since chipped away at those 100 proposals cited in the letter, calling that number “B.S.”

“We’re the ones trying to close it up,” he added, maintaining that the sticking point is the 8.5% raise over three years.

We reached Zalaskus as he was walking out the door for a meeting, but we’ll be talking to him later and will update as we get more info.

The next step will most likely result in a state mediator coming in to try and work out a deal between the two sides, hopefully keeping discussions from going to arbitration.

Updated at 4:07 9/21/10

Zalaskus points out that the last raise the teachers received was in 2008, and the 8.5% figure accounts for a missed raise last year, as well as for this year and 2011, and that 100 proposals cited in the letter is actually 28. (It began as 100 under previous union head Cheryl DelSignore’s negotiations, has been whittled down since Zalaskus stepped in a few months ago.)

He also disagrees with the School Committee’s idea that paying a 5% increase in their healthcare benefits would amount to savings for teachers, even with a supposed near $1,000 mitigation payment. Zalaskus argues that that “1% raise” gets wiped out for those with certain plans, and now it would be taxed.

It doesn’t sound like there’s much optimism for a deal to be done soon. As mediation was floated last week by the mayor, Zalaskus says “we’re not talking to each other anymore.” He alludes to a fight between siblings: teachers in one room and officials in the other, with the mediator walking back and forth playing he said, she said.

The letter, in full:

PRESS RELEASE

FROM THE

WORCESTER SCHOOL COMMITTEE

Negotiations for a successor collective bargaining agreement between the School Committee and the Educational Association of Worcester, which represents the District’s teachers, have broken down. On September 17, 2010, the School Committee concluded that the Parties were at an impasse in the negotiations and filed a petition with the Division of Labor Relations seeking the appointment of a mediator.

Since March of 2009, the Parties have met on twenty-two occasions and have endeavored to reach agreement on a deal of up to three years in duration. The contract with the teachers expired in August of 2009.

At this stage of the process, the primary area of disagreement centers on the EAW’s wage demands and the School Committee’s proposal to make health insurance plan design changes and for modest employee contribution changes. The School Committee is seeking to move all employees to a 25% percent contribution towards their health insurance coverage. Employees hired on or after July 1, 2006 already pay this percentage. Other employees hired prior to July 1, 2006 are now being asked to pay that same percentage, rather than the 20% they now pay. The proposed change would have all teachers paying at the same percentage as the bulk of the City’s non-school employees.

The School Committee has already extended an offer to the EAW to make adjustments to the salary schedule in recognition of the changed health insurance contribution rate, but this offer has been rejected by the EAW. Instead, the EAW seeks wage increases of 8.5% over the three years of the proposed contract duration. This would be in addition to any step increases which are available to many of the teachers in the bargaining unit. The offer from the School Committee is to take the projected savings from this health insurance changes in the first year and distribute 100% of that savings across all employees of the School District, irrespective of whether they participate in the District’s health insurance coverage. In this way, all employees, regardless of their pay scale, will receive an identical increase in compensation in order to mitigate the impact of the increased health insurance contribution. The amount being offered exceeds the first year impact on all employees who participate in the District’s health insurance coverage. In addition, the nearly 25% of District Employees who do not even have health insurance and will not be impacted by the requested changes will also receive this increase. Depending upon the coverage that employees now have and their current contribution rate, the proposed design changes will actually result in a decrease in the employees’ health insurance premium costs. This approach utilizes the savings to help employees mitigate the impact of the health insurance changes. Another approach would have been to utilize these savings to restore teaching positions, but that approach was unacceptable to the EAW.

Given the fiscal constraints facing the District now and in the future, the School Committee has been unable to extend any further financial offer to the EAW as doing so would require the layoff of additional teaching staff for the coming school year and beyond in order to fund any such offer. While this has been a difficult position for the School Committee to take, it represents the most sound educational decision for the students of the District.

In addition to the requested health insurance changes, the School Committee is also proposing contract changes which include modifications to the current evaluation process in order to align it more closely with the District’s improvement strategy which focuses on student improvement and to establish a reflective component in what is now an off-year in the evaluation process. The School Committee also proposes to limit the transfer of teachers whose performance has resulted in their placement on a resource team or who have not yet achieved professional teacher status. The School Committee has also placed a high priority on its proposal which seeks to require certain types of professional development in a teacher’s first three years. Other proposals seek to make the operation of the District more efficient through the use of direct deposit and to ensure greater contact with parents through mandated use of the School Fusion computer portal.

It should be noted that the EAW initially introduced approximately one hundred (100) proposals for changes to the current collective bargaining agreement, many of which have financial costs associated with them. In contrast, the School Committee’s proposals total 26, a number of which seek merely to extend agreements already in place between the Parties but which have expired with the prior contract.

During negotiations, the EAW has suggested that the District utilize one-time sources of revenues, such as the surplus in the health insurance trust fund or monies from the sale of the City’s airport in order to fund salary increases for the teachers. The School Committee does not regard these proposals as having any real merit in that these are not recurring revenue sources, yet any increases funded by them would be recurring expenses in future contracts. To take this approach would also be imprudent given that fiscal projections for the future are trending downward, making the requested increases even more difficult to sustain.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact Mayor Joseph O’Brien at 774-292-1177.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “School Committee letter sends direct message (updated)

  1. -Q

    what an inept school committee we have under the leadership (or lack thereof) from Mayor O’Brien
    when will the political powers to be finally address and start clearing out the over paid underperforming administrations both on the city side and the school side?
    25 administrative positions that could be eliminated on the school side of those making in excess of $100k would put $2.5 million back into the school budget……
    where the hell is the testicular fortitude of this inept mayor and schoool committee – easy to go after AGAIN the frontline service providers and ignore the buddy system in the administrations of both the school side and city side!
    Enough already!
    the taxpayers have to pick up the tab for for the incompetence of our supposed “leaders” and we as taxpayers cannot afford their largess anymore!

  2. -Q

    seems kind of funny that the letter is coming out now on the heels of the voters in the 13th Worc. house seat rejecting the endorsed/favored candidate of the Mayor that was backed by the eaw.
    I guess because the teachers union did not cowtail to the demands to elect the “annointed” one now the mayor is playing petty politics with the eaw
    I hope you run for re-election Joe because I am not going to let you run away from your blatant incompetence and the dirty politics you like to play
    I wonder how the eaw union now feels about you mr.mayor?
    take note other municipal unions – is the mayor a union supporter or a union buster – I think the mayors letter as printed in womag would suggest the latter

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