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Battle looms over school contract

April 27, 2011

PAWTUCKET — Once again, while a majority of school officials are touting the money savings benefits of the newly approved teachers' contract, City Councilors are vowing to keep pushing for their right to review and give final ratification of the agreement.
On Monday night, the School Committee held a special meeting in which members voted 5 to 2 to ratify a new two-year contract with the Pawtucket Teachers Alliance. School officials have stated that the benefits in the first year (2011-2012) of the contract will yield a savings of $2.9 million through the give-back of a 3 percent raise, while the cumulative savings over the life of the contract, which ends on June 30, 2013, has been listed as $5.5 million.
Yet, several side issues are swirling around the new contract and the way it was approved which have angered a majority of the City Council and have even drawn the concern of two members of the School Committee who voted in the minority against it.
Chief among these is the matter of whether the City Council should have been allowed to review and ratify the teachers contract, even though the General Assembly has not yet voted on legislation that would approve an amendment to the city's Home Rule Charter that calls for this. In the general election in November, voters approved this charter change by a margin of 63 to 37 percent, but this provision requires enabling legislation through the General Assembly to become law.
According to City Clerk Richard Goldstein, the General Assembly's legislative calendar shows the consideration of a bill in the House of Representatives that was introduced on March 30 by state Rep. Elaine Coderre, is reportedly scheduled for Wednesday. A duplicate bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Jaime Doyle.
Some critics have alleged that school officials, knowing of Wednesday's vote on the amendment, rushed Monday's meeting on the teacher's contract in order to get it ratified while still under the sole power of the School Committee. When asked about this, School Committee Chairman Raymond Spooner responded with an emphatic “Absolutely not.”
He, in turn, said the contract issue has become political and suggested that others have been working to speed up the vote on the amendment in order to give the City Council more control.
Last Wednesday night, the City Council voted to ask Spooner to table a vote on the contract and to cancel Monday night's special meeting. Spooner noted that it was unquestionably within the School Committee's legal purview to vote on the contract, so he did not cancel it. He also said a majority of the school board considered the contract to be a good one, which offers substantial savings to the city at a time when finances are dire. He noted that for the 2011-2012 year, the teachers' union was not legally bound to do anything, yet they gave up a raise and made other concessions for a new two-year pact. “We've done the job, we move on,” he said, of the School Committee's ratification Monday night.
However, in the wake of Monday's vote by the School Committee, City Council President David Moran told The Times that he has still requested a copy of the teachers' contract for the council members to review. He also said that he intends to ask the council to take an “up and down vote” on the new teachers' contract, even though he admitted that a “down” vote on a pact that has already been ratified by the School Committee gets into a “legal gray area.” He said he is hoping that, if the General Assembly approves legislation allowing for the Charter amendment, it will give the City Council the ability to act on the contract retroactively.
Moran said that the voters showed in November their “overwhelming” support for the City Council to have the ability to ratify all school contracts. Several other council members agreed, telling The Times that they, too, think the council should have the final say over school contracts, given the fact that this body decides how the money will be raised to pay all of the city's bills.
Moran also said that the new teachers' contract “sends a bad message” to the other city unions in that it only went up one percentage point, from 9 percent to 10 percent, in medical co-pays. He pointed out that the Grebien Administration has been looking for 25 percent co-pays from the city side and thinks the teachers' pact should have provided more of a concession in this area.
Councilor John J. Barry III conceded that while the new teachers contract has achieved some savings, “the savings probably aren't as much as we need.” He said that when compared to the concessions that the Grebien Administration is trying to get from the other municipal unions, “even the co-pays are lower than what they are looking for.”
Councilors Thomas Hodge and Mark Wildenhain also told The Times that they think the contract should be reviewed by the council, although Hodge allowed that he isn't sure what a vote by the City Council would gain at this point in the process. Wildenhain also commented, “While I support the reduction in the deficit, I think that more could have been achieved.”
Even on the School Committee there are concerns about the new contract. School Committeeman David Coughlin is asking questions about how the figure of $5.5 million in cumulative savings has been derived. He pointed out that there was no raise negotiated or owed in the 2012-2013 year of this new contract, and is asking whether this factor was considered in the overall savings figure that has been quoted. He complained that he had asked school business manager Thomas Conlon for an updated financial analysis prior to Monday's meeting, but did not receive one.
Additionally, Coughlin and fellow School Committeeman Raymond Noonan raised concerns about how certain provisions in the new contract that are based on seniority will sit with the state Education Commissioner's new Basic Education Plan. Coughlin and Noonan also tried Monday night to have the vote on the contract tabled, but they were unsuccessful. Coughlin told The Times he thinks the voters of the city spoke in November in wanting the City Council to review and ratify school contracts and thinks their will should be honored.
Mayor Donald Grebien declined to comment on the matter. Douglas Hadden, his director of communications and constituent services, said the mayor has no veto power over the teacher's contract as the City Council could have, should the amendment to the Home Rule Charter pass. He said Grebien believes it is a matter between the City Council and the School Committee.
Comments from some school board members about how the teachers' union had been the only city union so far that had come to the table didn't sit well with Augie Venice, president of Local 1012, the largest municipal workers' union. Venice noted that Local 1012 has given up plenty in the way of salary and benefits concessions going back to the 2008-2009 contract year to the present.
Venice told The Times that in 2008-2009 there was a pay freeze saving the city $272,234, and in 2009-2010, there was another pay freeze saving $272,234, along with employees taking 12 furlough days adding up to $419,241 for a total savings that year of $691,475. For 2010-2011, there was another wage frees of $272,234, plus changes in medical co-pays that raised payments from $500 to $1,500 for many employees. He added that the total savings to the city over the three years of the contract, which expires on June 30, totals over $1.4 million.


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