Teacher contracts go nowhere in Sag Harbor

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Teachers have expressed frustration over the slow pace of the contract talks. On Thursday, TASH President and Pierson High School guidance counselor Eileen Kochanasz sent out a press release that revealed more details about the generally secretive negotiations and what the district brought to the table last week. It noted that the district dropped some “relatively insignificant” demands, but continued to seek “serious concessions to health insurance benefits in retirement and the nature of the teacher workday.”

On Monday, Superintendent Dr. John Gratto and School Board President Walter Wilcoxen called a press conference to reveal specifics about the district’s proposal and explain its position on the issues, which it plans to discuss at a special board meeting at 6 p.m. on Thursday.

The district cited five major issues as the cause of the stalemate. Dr. Gratto and Mr. Wilcoxen said clashes over teacher salary increases and health insurance benefits in retirement are their biggest concerns, while disagreements on the duration of contracts, duty assignments and professional development may be more easily resolved.

Ms. Kochanasz said that TASH is willing to modify the union salary proposal and discuss “other district issues,” but she noted her disappointment that the board rejected serious counterproposals about health insurance and duty assignments.

According to Ms. Kochanasz, the worst part of last week’s bargaining session was that the district’s negotiators said they could not increase its salary offer from the beginning of the session, even if TASH lowered its proposal. “It seemed senseless at that point to further compromise our position, so we made no further proposals,” Ms. Kochanasz explained.

Dr. Gratto and Mr. Wilcoxen pointed out that teacher salaries increase each year through an incremental “step” system. Teacher salaries will automatically increase 2.77 percent this year, 2.57 percent next year and 2.31 percent in 2010-2011. The district has proposed an additional 2.5 percent increase for each of those years and as a result, teacher salaries would actually increase by 5.27 percent this year, part of which will come as back pay. Salaries would gain 15.92 percent over the life of the proposed contract, Dr. Gratto said.

“When you add to that the estimates of increases imposed upon the district in connection with medical, retirement and social security costs, each employee would cost the district an average 22.72 percent increase over the next three years,” Dr. Gratto’s memo explained. Mr. Wilcoxen said the percentage of increase for each step is not on the table, but he noted that a teacher can obtain additional college credits and degrees that can automatically raise his or her base salary. That higher salary would then continue to follow a maximum 27 step raises at the set percentage.

“Right now there’s very little approval for those courses,” Dr. Gratto said, adding that the board wants to make sure teachers take courses pertaining to their subject so the benefit can be passed on to students. In the past, he said there has been little oversight of this system and some teachers have gotten raises for taking courses that may not improve their ability to educate. Mr. Wilcoxen said the board has no problem paying increases as a result of professional development if students benefit.

On Wednesday, Ms. Kochanasz noted that this year’s budget was passed already and it included a 3.2 percent increase. She said TASH is asking for “the going rate,” which is now slightly more than budgeted, though the union president would not reveal exactly how much. She said step increments are never included in teacher raises, adding, “You have to compare apples to apples.” Ms. Kochanasz also pointed out that Dr. Gratto’s proposal to approve college courses for teachers may appear sensible, but if it passes, “He can say no to everything” and likely will.

Dr. Gratto said the district is also trying to trim some $54,000 it pays teachers to supervise lunch periods, but the union president argues that the teachers are paid for that duty in exchange for offering additional academic enrichment during the school day.

Outside of salary, the biggest stumbling block in negotiations has been health insurance benefits for retired teachers. Dr. Gratto said teachers hired before July 1, 2000, do not contribute toward their health benefits in retirement. Those hired since that date contribute 15 percent, but Dr. Gratto said the board would like all teachers to contribute that amount. To make the transition smooth, the superintendent said the district has proposed that the new policy would not go into effect until July 1, 2010.

Dr. Gratto later acknowledged that six teachers in Sag Harbor are at the top salary step and are paid $122,468 a year. The policy change might prompt them to retire early and allow for new, less expensive teachers to fill their slots, he said. In his memo, the superintendent pointed out that teachers in the East Hampton and Southampton school districts pay 50 percent toward individual coverage and 35 percent toward family coverage “regardless of their date of hire.” Last week, he said that no matter what the fact finders report about retirement health benefits, “I don’t see us moving on that.”

The length of the contract is another potential sticking point, with the union seeking a five-year deal and the district proposing a three-year contract.

“We’re open to five years, but it’s hard to predict the financial condition of the economy that far out,” Dr. Gratto said.

The state’s Public Employment Relations Board will conduct the fact finding, and Dr. Gratto said both parties would like to move forward as quickly as possible. “I think it could happen in January,” he said, adding that the district and the union will get a choice of seven neutral arbitrators. The results could be reported as early as February, but they serve only as a guide and are not binding for either party.

The first district budget presentation is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Monday, and Dr. Gratto said he’s looking for ways to save as much money as possible for the district without hurting students or programs. “We hope we don’t have to cut staff or programs with this contract,” the superintendent warned, noting earlier that the board is working to gain the confidence of voters so the budget will pass.

Mr. Wilcoxen said that the current proposal will not hurt programs, but he acknowledged that over time, “We’d be hard-pressed to say we’re not going to cut program at all.” He and Dr. Gratto also noted that they have allocated some money in the initial facilities budget to improve Pierson’s auditorium and they are looking at a long-range plan for $5 million in necessary capital projects.

Ms. Kochanasz said the board is manufacturing much of the impending “crisis” that has prompted its focus on cost savings and budget cuts, adding, “He’s already cut $310,000” to prepare for the alleged crisis. “Where the hell is it?” she said. “I’m not buying this panic.”

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