Optimism grows for pact as teacher talks continue
Unless there’s a dramatic turn of events, a second Warwick academic year will come to a close without a teachers contract.
But as disheartening as that prospect seems, there’s a positive feel from those close to negotiations as well as teachers interviewed last week that chances of a settlement are better now than they have been since the last contract expired in August 2015. What’s fueling such optimism is continued mediation – with one daylong session – despite the absence of Vincent Ragosta, an attorney and mediator.
Mayor Scott Avedisian, who has attended mediation since this winter, stepped in to facilitate sessions in Ragosta’s absence. Talks have also been held in the absence of the mayor and Ragosta. Avedisian deferred comment to Ragosta but is hopeful an end to the prolonged dispute that has shadowed the district and made for contentious school committee meetings is in sight.
Those differences have not only been bones of contention during mediation but also in interest arbitration and complaints brought to the state Labor Relations Board and the courts.
Interest arbitration that identified about 12 issues including a system of “weighting” special needs students as more than one student in determining class size, salaries, sick days and the use of seniority in filling job fair positions has been completed, but the arbitrator has yet to convene a panel with a representative from each of the parties to render a decision. The more issues the sides can resolve now, the less likely either side is to be surprised by an adverse decision. The same can be said for cases before the Labor Relations Board and the courts. Presumably, if an agreement were reached those cases would be withdrawn.
The court has already leaned in favor of the school committee, finding it did not have to follow the terms of the expired contract when it consolidated secondary schools, laying off more than 20 teachers as the former contract specified. The committee closed Gorton and Aldrich Junior High Schools and Veterans Memorial High School. Last fall, Vets opened as a junior high.
“I have given the parties some direction and they’re working somewhat independently,” Ragosta said in an interview Friday. He said the sides are “working very responsibly and diligently. I’m encouraged.”
He would not confirm that the parties have narrowed the outstanding issues identified in interest arbitration down to five points as rumored.
Without disclosing specifics of the process, Ragosta said he suggested the parties use a method of resolving differences he has found successful in other cases.
“They have embraced that and I give them credit for working independently,” he said. He described the technique as “compelling both sides to put their best foot forward.”
Warwick Teachers Union president Darlene Netcoh agreed Monday that progress is being made, reminding that talks, not court action, is the “only method to produce an agreement.”
Mediation has been postponed this week because of high school graduations but will resume next week.
“They enjoy going to court,” Netcoh said of the School Committee.
Nonetheless, at the committee’s request, the court has postponed the committee’s argument that the union can’t file a grievance and proceed to arbitration since the teachers lack a contract.
“They refuse to honor the terms of conditions [as they applied to the former contract] as they apply,” she said. Netcoh pointed out that is a departure from the practice of the past 25 years.
Apart from mediation, it would appear there will be the funds to pay for a contract even though the City Council sliced the additional $3 million in city funding Avedisian allocated for schools in his $310.5 million budget, saying he had an agreement with the superintendent that $2.4 million would be earmarked to implement a contract The council trimmed $5 million from Avedisian’s budget so as to hold the line on taxes. It also pledged it would support a $3 million draw down from the rainy day fund if an agreement is reached.
In his follow-up message he would not veto any of the 29 budget amendments made by the council, Avedisian was hopeful deletion of the school appropriation would not dampen talks. He also said should an agreement be reached he would be requesting an appropriation.