A proposed contract giving teachers raises of nearly 3% three years running, while holding down the town’s long-term benefit costs, will be reviewed by the selectmen and possibly a town meeting.
The agreement was negotiated between the school board and teachers’ union last fall, and lawyers for the two sides spent a couple of months working out the wording. The finalized contract was officially filed in the town clerk’s office late Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 13, triggering a 30-day review period during which the agreement may be challenged by the town, and sent back through a state-supervised arbitration process.
Taxpayer advocate Ed Tyrrell has been urging the Board of Selectmen to act on the contract, or call a town meeting that could reject it — a procedure that is allowed under state statute but has rarely been used by Ridgefield.
“Teacher salaries are $37 million per year. That is 30% of Ridgefield’s entire budget,” he said in a letter to the selectmen. “Teacher salaries are $5 million more per year than the entire Board of Selectmen budget!
“By the end of your budget deliberations this year, you will be looking to save $500 here or a $250 there. In comparison, you now have before you the opportunity to decide whether $37 million is the right or wrong number. …
“For ages, you have passed on this opportunity; please do not pass on it again. But if you must pass on it, please give the opportunity to the voters of Ridgefield by scheduling a Town Meeting. … They will thank you.”
First Selectman Rudy Marconi said Tuesday that he would honor Mr. Tyrrell’s request and put the teachers’ contract on the selectmen’s agenda for discussion.
Figuring there would need to be a town meeting before March 13 to act on the contract question, Mr. Marconi said he would likely put the topic on the selectmen’s agenda for discussion next Wednesday, Feb. 27 — a meeting scheduled to start at 6:30.
The selectmen are also scheduled to meet Monday, March 4, through Thursday, March 7, for budget discussions. One of those meetings could be a fall-back date — or a time for continued discussion — while still allowing the five days needed for public notice of a March 13 town meeting.
Selectman Andy Bodner said this week that the selectmen should take a look at the contract.
“Yes, I think Ed has raised questions about the contract that the Board of Selectmen are obligated to review,” he said.
The contract terms agreed to by the union and Board of Education gave teachers raises of just under 3% three years in a row — 2.9%, 2.84% and 2.97% — on an annual salary account of about $39 million.
School board members have said that in return they got the union to agree to a variety of changes to teachers’ benefits, including a phase-out of previously free health benefits for retired teachers, who will start having to share costs with the board under the new contract.
School board Chairman Austin Drukker said actuaries were calculating the savings to the town over time achieved by renegotiation of what labor negotiators describe as “other post employment benefits.” School board negotiating committee member John Palermo said in a column in The Press in December that these expenses — sometimes called “OPEB costs” — could amount to a $72-million liability for the town over time, if they weren’t renegotiated.
“That’s where the savings come in, is the long term. This is a long-term benefit for the town as a whole,” Mr. Drukker said. “We had to give up a little in the beginning to get something for the town in the end.”
Board of Finance Chairman Dave Ulmer said the school board had a legitimate concern about the OPEB costs and “the long-term actuarial liability” posed by not getting the retirement health benefits under better control.
“Both the mediator and our own hired negotiator told us that the OPEB issue would be a heavy lift that we might well lose in arbitration. …” Mr. Ulmer said. “… It was significant and would have been a drain on ongoing budgets and/or future contract negotiations.”
He added, “You pay in negotiations for prior ‘mistakes,’ especially when those prior mistakes were giving up things in benefits for limiting raises. In the past, we gave benefits (particularly OPEB) that may not have been a big deal then but that have ballooned in recent years.”
Concern about benefits costs is a viewpoint the first selectman has some sympathy for.
“In negotiations, a dollar of salary is worth less than a dollar of benefits,” Mr. Marconi said. “And although you want to keep salary benefits in line with today’s economy, there are times when you may be willing to go a little higher based on recent awards made by an arbitration panel — or spend a dollar of salary to get back a dollar of benefits costs, because benefits costs rise more rapidly than salary.”
Mr. Bodner said he was eager to see an analysis of the contract’s costs and benefits.
“Rudy told me that he has asked for an evaluation of the contract that would show what the annual costs of the contract would be, recognizing the forecast savings …” Mr. Bodner said.
“… My bottom line, if the savings compensate for what appears to be above-market raises, then I am OK with contract. If they do not, then I agree with Ed that the Board of Selectmen should be obligated to bring the contract to a town meeting for ratification or rejection.”
Mr. Marconi also had concerns that the procedure laid out by statute — sending a rejected contract back through the state arbitration process — might not be beneficial to the town.
“If this contract is rejected by a town meeting, it means that it will then go back to the arbitration process, and it leaves the outcome of the contract in the hands of a state arbitration panel,” he said. “There is no guarantee that their decision would yield a better contract than what we already have.”
Mr. Ulmer shared the concern that sending the contract back would be a gamble.
“Could we do better in arbitration? Again, our hired expert and the mediator thought probably not,” Mr. Ulmer said. “Going to arbitration as a 50/50 proposition that we would get a better deal from an arbitrator is a very poor roll of the dice. Had we not had OPEB, it would have moved the odds more in our favor in arbitration (as well as helped in getting a better deal in mediation).”
In calling for a review of the contract at selectmen’s Feb. 6 meeting, Mr. Tyrrell told the board that public discussion of the costs and benefits was the state statute’s goal — and something Ridgefield’s new teachers’ contract should be subject to.
“Either before you at a meeting similar to this, or in front of a town meeting, the Board of Education should have to defend their proposed contract. That is the purpose of the state statute,” Mr. Tyrrell said.
“If it is as great as they say it is, then it will not be rejected. If it doesn’t measure up, it will be rejected and go to binding arbitration, where municipalities are faring better than ever,” he said.
“Wilton went to arbitration last year and Newtown did it this year, two towns very similar to us. If we only did as good as Newtown recently did, we would be saving $853,000 per year at the end of this contract. That is far more than the cost of the arbitration, but more importantly sends a message that we will not roll over during future negotiations.”