The Greenwich Board of Education took action on the proposed Greenwich Education Association contract, and after a vigorous debate, ended up approving it at their Sept. 22 meeting.
Chair of the Negotiations Committee Peter Sherr, presented the contract details. Board members Jonathan Cohen and Nancy Kail, who was not present the meeting, also sat on the Negotiation Committee.
Sherr began the discussion with a lengthy thank-you to several individuals involved in the negotiations before providing an explanation of what he believed were the four primary points of focus during the process with the first being that the contract "preserves a high level of (health care) benefits" that emerged through the dialogue at the negotiating table.
Key to the contract was a migration by teachers to health savings accounts which will result in significant savings to the town while maintaining a high level of benefits for the teachers.
Sherr characterized this as a "win/win" because it ultimately will "help the town to control health care costs" while addressing the concerns that teachers have with health care costs.
Sherr described the contract as "economically sound,” stating however, that the discussion on wages was "hard fought." In the end, Greenwich teachers are among the highest paid in the state, Sherr said.
Small but continued growth in "teacher development" stipends and funds was the third point highlighted. Sherr stressed the importance of providing staff the opportunity to improve their capabilities. The final point was what Sherr described as "teachers are partners" noting that the "dialogue" with teachers continues outside of the negotiations.
Sherr went on to explain that the all-in cost of the contact was $288.2 million over 3 years which, at 2.7 percent more than the base cost of 2011-2012, was substantially smaller than the prior contract which came in at 15.7 percent. Increases in the total wages line of 2.5 percent a year were offset by significant savings in the town health care line which decreased 20 percent.
Board member Marianna Ponns Cohen reacted positively to the contract noting its overall reasonable increase as well as the change to the benefits plan which would be positive trend for the town.
Board member Michael Bodson, however, expressed concerns over the growth in the total wages which totaled $243.1 million over the 3 years, or $11.4 million above the base.
Bodson explained that while the all-in cost to the town was reasonable, the health care expense was captured as part of the town budget while the total wages portion was part of the Board of Education budget which he felt was their area of responsibility.
Given the difficult economic environment, Bodson felt that having any contract which showed increases could result in the Board of Education becoming a target if the town needs to cut costs.
Bodson further explained that the union signed a generous contract directly before the economic crisis (current contract) and the town met their commitment to pay the increases, despite what was happening in the economy.
His rationale is that continuing to increase salaries during such a harsh economic environment may not be prudent. "In future years, if the town is looking to cut costs, there isn’t enough left in health care to reduce so there is only one place to reduce which is wages. If you have high salaries that means you could face layoffs as the only way to save money and that would be disastrous for teachers and more importantly for students. We are painting a target on our backs. Job security and student achievement pre-empts everything else.”
Board Chairman Steve Anderson echoed Bodson's concerns stating that there are "lots of savings on town side" and the "bulk of increases" are in the education budget. "The RTM will come and ping us," he said, referring to zero wage increases other town employee unions have accepted and "yours are going up again."
Anderson said he wants to see a maintained "fiscal prudence on BoE budget" and that he feels that the ramifications of this contract "make our job that much tougher."
Sherr said that Michael Mason, BET Budget Committee chairman, and Larry Simon, also on the BET Budget Committee "participated in the solution" and were all pleased with the results.
Ponns Cohen said while she appreciated Bodson's points, she asked what would be his solution. Bodson responded, "Let's ask the Chairman (referring to Sherr), would the teachers be willing to give back wages?"
Cohen, a member of the board's negotiation team, said, "We can always renegotiate based on mutual consent." Cohen said he felt it was difficult to project economically over a three-year period of time pointing to everything from inflation and unemployment, to housing and transportation costs, which are reliant on energy among other factors which are beyond the board's and town's control.
Cohen, and all agreed, that the wages earned by the teacher need to be fair.
While Sherr too said he couldn't argue with Bodson's point, he said that he felt it was best to negotiate the total costs. He made an analogy to a pair of pants and that there is "some money in one pocket" and "some in the other." It was a "judgment" on his part and that "I am going to trust that the BET" and other town officials will support that "this is a good deal for the town and a good deal for teachers," a view he said was also expressed by Simon. The BET is a strong partner and Sherr said he has a "high level of certainty" that that the BET would fund this at an appropriate level.
Sherr thanked members for their "valid concerns" and pointed to the fact that the negotiations committee "consults with groups in advance" including the Board of Selectmen, and that he received favorable indications regarding the direction of the contract. Sherr also said that there was a planned meeting the RTM's Labor Contract Committee Monday evening.
Ponns Cohen did say that the points made were a "reality check" and that the board was having a "telling conversation." Stating the "BoE is a consumer," Ponns Cohen said, "money is fungible."
Member Leslie Moriarity cautioned that when it came time for the contract to be presented through the process that the BET and the RTM will "need to be reminded how we got to this point" when looking at our (BoE) side of the ledger.
Schools Director of Human Resources Dr. Robert Lictenfeld, who participated in the negotiations, said this contract was reached through mediation. If the board did not approve it, the contract wouldn't be "renegotiated" but would go to binding arbitration.
In the end, the board voted 5-2 with Bodson and Anderson casting the dissenting votes.
Subsequent to the meeting, GEA President Cathy Delehanty said that she felt both parties (GEA and BoE) "worked hard to achieve this agreement in tough economic times."
Delehanty said, "We believe both sides took all issues seriously and attempted to act reasonably with every issue brought forward. GEA will be working with our members as we move forward with the new insurance plan and with the proposed structure we believe both parties will see savings."
Delehanty said the GEA has agreed to investigate in even deeper savings in health care costs with Al Cava, the town's labor relations director, who is the town's chief negotiator for all collective bargaining agreements with municipal and noncertified board of education employees.
Delehanty agreed with Sherr, that all parties "took this seriously" and that she is “happy and hopeful” with the contract approval but admitted she is “confused by the dissention.”