About 70 Warwick teachers brought the message they aren’t happy with contract negotiations to the school administration Tuesday afternoon. Carrying WTU signs, the teachers picketed in front of the administration building on Warwick Avenue.
“They’re not interested in mediation any more. They’re going for arbitration,” said Darlene Netcoh, a Toll Gate English teacher and member of the union’s executive committee.
She said the union was pleased with attorney Vincent Ragosta, finding him “fair and unbiased,” but that after two sessions the school administration filed for arbitration. Ragosta was serving as the mediator.
“We want to negotiate with them and we want a fair contract,” Netcoh said.
But Superintendent Philip Thornton, sitting in his office beyond view of the picketers, said mediation wasn’t getting anywhere and the district is taking the next step in the process by filing for arbitration. Unlike mediation – in which delegations from both sides meet with the assistance of a mediator – each of the parties names an arbitrator and agrees on a third. Sessions are smaller and more focused. Under arbitration, the trio votes on what they conclude are fair terms of an agreement, although the process is not binding when it comes to fiscal matters.
“It’s a streamlined process,” Thornton said of arbitration. He said that the committee has made “a substantial offer” to the union. He did not disclose any details.
That differs from what the union says. Netcoh said the School Committee “has proven they’re unwilling to negotiate in good faith,” adding, “arbitration is a step in the wrong direction.”
“I think compromise means to them getting everything they want,” she said.
Netcoh charged the committee with proposing to “rip up” every page of the 50-plus-page contract and start anew.
One of the issues she feels is indicative of the “pettiness” of the committee would require teachers to stay at school during their break periods. She asks what employees are not permitted to leave the workplace while on break.
The major sticking point with the committee and the union is a system of class weighting that treats students with IEPs, or individualized education program, as more than one student when calculating class size. Weighting is unique to the Warwick contract in Rhode Island and viewed by the committee as limiting flexibility and driving up costs. The union has characterized committee efforts to dump weighting as hurting special needs students and increasing class sizes to the detriment of all students.
While other districts don’t have weighting, Netcoh said there are measures designed to ensure IEP students receive proper attention.
“They have this and they just don’t call it weighting,” she said.
The district is also faced with the consolidation of secondary schools with the closure of Gorton and Aldrich Junior High Schools and Vets High School at the conclusion of the current academic year. Vets is to be re-purposed as junior high, with both it and Winman converting into middle schools in 2017.
By contract, the district cannot lay off more than 20 teachers in a single year.
The committee is looking to change the provision so as to reduce costs in line with declining student enrollment. Netcoh questions if a change is needed since, by attrition, the district has reduced the ranks of teachers without laying off the 20 a year it could by contract.
Asked if the committee is looking to write an all-new contract, Thornton said, “We have a lot of proposed changes.” He doesn’t see what the committee is looking for as extraordinary.
“What we’re looking for are language changes common in AFT [American Federation of Teachers] districts,” he said.
When the Warwick contract expired in August 2014, the committee and union agreed to a one-year extension of the contract reached in 2011 with a salary adjustment. That agreement expired this August. Even though the union did not vote on “work to rule” – whereby teachers abide by the terms of the contract and nothing more – that practice is prevalent. It has been a source of friction, and when committee vice chairman Eugene Nadeau listed more than 20 activities that teachers weren’t performing according to his survey of school principals, it provoked an outcry from teachers.
Netcoh said the last time the union and the committee went to arbitration in the early 1990s, it failed to produce an agreement and wasted two years. She fears the same thing could happen again.
By state statute, the two partial arbitrators – in this case Robert Casey for the union and attorney Ron Cascione for the district – have 10 days to agree on an impartial arbitrator. If they can’t reach an agreement, they then appeal to the American Arbitration Association to select an arbitrator. Once the panel is named, it has 20 days to conduct meetings, after which a report is to be publicly released in 10 days.
Thornton thinks arbitration would expedite an agreement. Although virtually all contract language could be argued as having a financial impact and thus be considered non-binding under the law, Thornton said it would make public what arbitrators – at least two of the three – believed is a fair contract.