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Westboro School Committee and teachers at impasse.

Byline: Kevin T. Baldwin

WESTBORO - Both the School Committee and the Westboro Teachers Association (WTA) have begun seeking outside arbitration because, according to School Superintendent Dr. Anne Towle, the two groups have reached "an impasse."

"The teachers are asking for a different amount of money from what the School Committee is offering," Towle said.

On April 30, as teachers picketed in front of the Forbes Municipal Building, the School Committee announced a deal had been struck with the paraprofessionals union, which had joined the teachers' union, in previous pickets.

According to Towle, paraprofessionals, represented by the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) same as the WTA are special education workers who are not licensed to teach and are a totally separate union. Thus the agreement had no bearing on negotiations between the School Committee and the WTA.

"There's been no agreement with the teachers' union. We have now filed with the state for fact finding, where both sides will have an opportunity to present their last offer," Towle said. "An arbitrator will make a recommendation (to settle the disputed areas of the contract) and then both sides will have the opportunity to reject or accept the recommendation."

There have been several school negotiation sessions and, according to Towle, a new negotiating team for the WTA was formed in October 2007 to meet with the School Committee. Since the beginning of February, the teachers have been picketing at various locations and times in Westboro.

"It was after these meetings between the WTA and the School Committee when things began to break down and the WTA began to picket and decided to follow work-to-rule," Towle said.

Work-to-rule, according to Towle, means teachers usually arrive at school at the same time in the morning, and leave together in the evening.

"The teachers limit extracurricular school activities," Towle said. "A typical teacher working without extracurricular activities will work and then leave as a group with other (work-to-rule) teachers at the end of the day."

Since February 2007, the School Committee has been in contract negotiations with the WTA and on April 10 issued a press release, indicating how they made offers to the WTA in three main areas, which were rejected by the WTA:

A base salary increase

As recommended by the School Committee, there would be a 2.5 percent increase the first year, 3 percent in the second year, and another 3 percent in the third year.

In a response issued by the WTA, the union acknowledged this area was voted down "primarily because of an issue of overwhelming distrust the teachers have in regards to the present superintendent and her ability to twist the language in the contract so that its original intent could be misconstrued."

Steps and lanes

Steps automatically increase all teachers' salaries anywhere from 2 to 5 percent up to their 12th year in the system. Lanes automatically increase salary for attainment of advanced educational degrees.

"While the School Committee considers this an additional salary increase, the WTA considers it as a regular standard increase," Towle said.

The steps and lanes increases as recommended by the School Committee would be 3.2 percent for the first year (first contract), 5.5 percent in the second year (first year of second contract), 5.5 percent in the third year 3 and 5.5 percent in the fourth year.

The School Committee maintained this would mean the average salary increase for teachers over the four-year life of the two contracts would be 4.9 percent, which is higher than the cost of living inflation index of 3 percent.

The WTA press release stated this increase "does not meet the cost of living inflation index."

Health insurance

The teachers' employee contribution for the Fallon Plan would increase from the current 10 percent to 15 percent in year one, 20 percent in the second year and 25 percent in the third year.

"That increase would make the WTA match every other position in town, both on the municipal side and on the school side," Towle said.

The press release from the WTA stated "money should not be taken out of one third of our teachers' paychecks in order to fund the raises of the others."

Each side put forth proposals on April 8 which were mutually rejected.

"Both sides found themselves at an impasse, which meant they needed outside assistance to help resolve the ongoing dispute," Towle said.

On April 23, the School Committee filed a petition for fact finding

"Now negotiations will be conducted by a private mediator, who comes from Connecticut which both sides agreed to," Towle said. "We have sent in the necessary paperwork to our attorney and the Division of Labor Relations."

Rod Jane, who was recently elected selectman, had been the primary negotiator as chairman for the School Committee during the contract talks with the WTA.

"The board and School Committee would like to get the teachers' contract settled in the hopes to bring a timely settlement for the teachers," Jane said.

Bonnie Ross, president of the WTA and a first-grade teacher at Hastings Elementary School, said she hopes the negotiations will move beyond the current stalemate.

"The best thing that could have happened is if the School Committee had or would be willing to come back to the negotiating table and meet with the teachers' union," Ross said. "Instead, where we are now is the School Committee is in the process of getting fact finding done. The main sticking point is with the zero percent increase being offered by the School Committee for the first year, which the teachers are opposed to."

Ross said she hopes School Committee member Bruce Tretter, who is taking over negotiations, will be more responsive to their demands than Jane was.

"I am the new chairperson, as of last Wednesday (May 7), and will be on the negotiating team," Tretter said.

"I've known Bruce for a long time. He's been on our labor management board and served on other committees. I know Bruce and trust that he will see what is in the best interest of the teachers," Ross said.

Both sides will present written arguments to the mediator. While the School Committee will be represented by an attorney, Towle said she wasn't sure who would be representing the WTA.

A press release issued by the School Committee dated April 10 stated, "Clearly the town can no longer afford the offer that the teachers declined in October, and the School Committee will not even contemplate the most unreasonable proposals made by the new negotiating team."

Former Westboro High School Principal John Pierce, who retired last year, issued a statement through the WTA regarding the stalemate in contract negotiations.

"I am genuinely disturbed regarding the eroding morale of teachers, the declining confidence and support of parents and a diminished sense of community that has served everyone so very well," Pierce wrote. "If the future of Westboro is to be as praiseworthy as its rich history then something has to alter these flawed negotiations. If not, the ultimate results will produce no winners and heavy losses. Westboro is an extraordinary community with sophistication and resources that demand a strategy for conflict resolution, which rises above dated and crude industrial practices that are defining this struggle. While no one is to blame, everyone is responsible for a proper reconciliation."

Since no agreement has been achieved, at the April 17 annual town meeting, the announced school budget, which would normally include contract prices, according to Towle "will not take place."

"Everything will remain status quo until there is an agreement," Towle said. "I hope this will all settle soon. The School Committee, the town and the teachers' union are all looking for a fair settlement. We have excellent teachers and they deserve a good contract. Nobody disagrees with that. We just can't agree on what that good contract should look like."
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:May 15, 2008
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