With a bird-in-the-hand teachers’ contract that balances 3%-a-year raises by reducing the growth of health insurance and retirement costs, First Selectman Rudy Marconi thinks taxpayers should look closely before rejecting the deal to chase a bird-in-the-bush contract through arbitration.
“We need to be very careful, and be sure this is what we want to do, because we could end up worse than what we are,” Mr. Marconi said last Monday.
Terms of a new three-year contract increasing the schools’ current teacher salary cost of about $39 million a year by 2.9%, 2.84% and 2.97% — about $1 million each of the three years, including step increases — have been approved by both teachers union and school board.
But a little-used state statute allows the selectmen and town meeting to send a contract back to arbitration. And the agreement’s 8.71% raises over three years are being challenged by taxpayer advocate Ed Tyrrell.
“While the contract may have some savings in the benefit area, those savings are minuscule when compared to an 8.8% raise,” Mr. Tyrrell told the selectmen Wednesday, Nov. 28. “Ridgefield cannot afford such a contract.
He asked the selectmen to reject the contact once it’s officially filed with the town clerk.
School Personnel Director Karen Dewing said Tuesday that while both the school board and the teachers union membership have voted to approve contract terms worked out with a state mediator, the final document’s wording is still being groomed by lawyers for the two sides.
“There’s a tentative agreement that’s agreed to — this happened through mediation,” Ms. Dewing said. “We then go back to the attorneys who revise the contract.”
“It’s now being reviewed by the union’s lawyers,” Ms. Dewing said. “It’s still in draft form. Once both sides have said ‘Yes, it does represent what was agreed to’ I’ll get signatures from the Board of Education chair, and the union president.”
Then, she’ll file the final, signed document in the town clerk’s office, starting the 30 days the selectmen have to reject the package before it becomes binding.
“My goal is to have it done in the next couple of weeks,” Ms. Dewing said.
Mr. Tyrrell, who last year led an effort to have $4.3 million CL&P refund returned directly to the taxpayers, said, “This contract will create a cost structure for the town that will continue the mistake repeated year after year for the last 10 years wherein the Board of Selectmen has sacrificed its small part of the overall budget to sustain wasteful increases in the Board of Education’s budget. There is no better example of a wasteful increase than this proposed contract which gets the taxpayers and the schoolchildren nothing for the 8.8%.”
Mr. Marconi said Monday that rejection has its risks. “You can go this route, where the Board of Selectmen says ‘OK, we think it should go to a town meeting.’ If the town meeting rejects the contract, it automatically then goes to arbitration.”
Under state labor law arbitration panels cannot propose compromises, they can only go through various contract terms and choose between the final offers of each side
“In arbitration, both sides submit their best and last offer. The arbitration panel then selects either column A or column B, selects management or the union,” Mr. Marconi said.
School board members have touted the contract as reducing health insurance costs by $600,000 next year, while securing even more substantial long term cost savings in retirement benefits.
“I think what the public has not been told is what were the give-backs that were achieved during this negotiation. You cannot just look at what the salary rate increase was, or is,” Mr. Marconi said.
“The benefits side has a tendency to increase at a greater rate … Therefore, that one dollar of concessions on insurance can cost you more in the long run than a dollar given up on raises.”
The teachers union, National education Association-RIdgefield (NEA-R) and the school board are satisfied with trade-offs by both sides.
“Negotiation isn’t an easy process,” said NEA-R president Pat Gotimer.
Changing retirement health benefits was tough to agree to, especially for longtime teachers who have planned on having certain benefits.
“After this was basically pledged to them years ago… thinking that this was going to be given to them for their contribution to Ridgefield and to the community,” she said. “Obviously [longtime teachers] were not thrilled with it.”
“As I tried to explain to people, you have to negotiate for not only the whole but all the little subgroups of the whole, so we had to give and take on many issues, as did the board,” she said.
School board members made it a priority to lower the district’s long-term health care obligations, and the contract is designed to do that. In a column, school board member John Palermo, who was involved in the negotiation, details the school board’s thinking.
“We again have a fair package that benefits the town, the district and the teachers,” Mr. Palermo said.