Finding common ground
The New Year brings with it hope that Warwick schools and the Warwick Teachers Union will finally reach an agreement as Mayor Scott Avedisian joins the parties in resumed mediation talks.
While the parties continue to meet in interest arbitration, a process that has taken about a year and is expected to come to a close within the month, the School Committee broke off mediation on October 14. At the time committee chair Beth Furtado concluded progress wasn’t being made and the process was serving to only line the pockets of the lawyers. Mediator Vincent Ragosta agreed. In an email to the school administration he wrote that both the committee and the union “have made it clear to me that they are resolute in pursuing or opposing certain core proposals.”
The schools and union have been here before, only the outcome has been little more than patching over some differences and a pay raise. The most current contract that expired in August 2015 was a one-year extension of the agreement expiring the previous August with a raise in pay.
In many ways the contract has become an outdated, codified system of operating schools that has little bearing to today. It requires carbon copies of certain records and perhaps most illustrative of how the union has held steadfast to negotiating change, rather than agreeing to adopt electronic grading in secondary schools. The system was introduced more than five years ago, but because it was not defined in the contract – although in negotiations the union agreed it was the way to go – the union objected when the administration sought to mandate it. The union’s argument was that grading is a part of the contract and until there is an overall agreement, the administration had no right to change it. This dispute ended up in court with the judge ruling he would not intervene as the department had other means of implementing the system. The school administration moved ahead, threatening disciplinary action. Coincidentally, about a third of the Vets teachers called in sick the day the system was to have become the standard. As of last Friday, however, 100 percent of the secondary teachers are using the system according to Superintendent Philip Thornton.
Conversely, the union has a point that the administration, in disregard of findings of unfair labor practices, has moved ahead with more layoffs than defined by the prior contract. This, too, has ended up in the courts and so far, the rulings have been favorable to the schools.
What is strikingly different to prior teacher contract impasses is that communication remains open, arbitration continues and now mediation is to resume. The courts have pushed some issues, but as Mr. Ragosta observed the parties are adamant on certain core proposals.
Finding common ground is the challenge Mayor Avedisian is taking on.
It’s a first step. What’s really needed is a change in culture, a building of trust between the parties and a commitment to working together on behalf of our children. It’s a lot to hope for and it’s an outcome that both parties should focus on.