While contract talks between the teachers union and Warwick Schools seem to be caught in a backwater, both parties say an agreement can be reached before the extension of the current agreement expires Aug. 31.
That agreement could be critical as to whether the department can balance the budget for the fiscal year starting July 1. Under the extension of the contract that expired last August, teachers increased their co-payment for health care from $11 a week to 20 percent of the premium cost.
That action enabled the department to save $2 million in the current budget.
The department requested mediation from the Department of Labor and Training on April 30, but it hasn’t progressed from there, Rosemary Healey, director of Human Resources and department counsel, said yesterday.
Healey said the department has indicated that Roger Williams Law Professor Bruce Kogan, who served as mediator for the Warwick Independent School Employees (WISE) talks, is acceptable to the department although he has not been appointed.
While a contract with WISE was not resolved with mediation, Healey said, “he [Kogan] brought us many steps closer together. He was very effective.”
Healey said there has been contact with the union since the request for mediation but “no full fledged negotiations.”
Although the situation might be termed amicable and the sides are talking, Healey says the parties “are very far apart.” She said there are “some difficult issues that are economic related and going to take some time to work out.”
There’s little doubt, however, unless there is a further extension of the current agreement or a new one in place that the Warwick Teachers Union expects to return to the $11-a-week co-payment.
“We revert to where we were,” union president James Ginolfi said.
Still, Ginolfi is optimistic.
“I don’t see any issues that can’t be resolved,” he said.
Can an agreement be reached by the end of August?
“I think from this side it’s certainly possible,” he answered.
Superintendent Peter Horoschak isn’t as positive.
“We have a long way to go. You never know. It’s one step at a time,” he said.
Horoschak said the budget “is built” on the 20 percent health care co-payment and that to revert to the $11-a-week payment would leave the department in a hole.
Under the terms of their arrangement, neither the union nor the department is talking about specifics. Nonetheless, it is thought that classroom “weighting,” which has long been a contract provision the department has sought to change, is a sticking point. Unique to Warwick, the weighting system considers a student’s individual education plan (IEP) when determining a class size. Some students with IEPs count as two students when arriving at a class size, meaning that the actual class size is less than the maximum allowable under contract. Thus, the department must establish additional classes and hire additional teachers.
The union has questioned department calculations, which were made several years ago, that without the weighting system the department could operate with 100 fewer teachers and generate $10 million in savings. The union has argued that the weighting system enables teachers to effectively teach classes when students with identified learning issues are part of the population. Enlarging those classes, they reason, would impair the educational system and stress teachers.
Asked about mediation, Ginolfi said the union has gone down the list of mediators, adding, “We have not agreed on a person.”
Both parties must agree on the mediator for the process to start.
Healey said she would renew contact with the Department of Labor and Training and that she is hopeful mediation could start soon.
Laura Hart, a spokeswoman for the department, said they had received a request for mediation and that “last we knew, they [the parties] were in discussions.”
Alluding to prior contract disputes that have made for hostile relations between the union and the department, Healey said, “I haven’t written this off as a long-term contract dispute.”
The department’s chief budget officer, Anthony Ferrucci, said that since the upcoming budget is based on no increases in health care costs, that the $2 million savings realized from the 20 percent co-payment this year should be the same in the next fiscal year. Of course, that is dependent on whether the sides reach an agreement by the time school starts.