Just when it seemed there would be some long-awaited labor peace between the Warwick Teachers Union and the Warwick School Department, a flurry of emails that reveals a conflict over when teachers will receive retroactive and proactive pay raises is already threatening to bubble into a boil less than a month removed from the ratification of two new collective bargaining agreements in mid-November.
Emails sent to the Beacon reveal that Warwick Teachers Union president Darlene Netcoh is rallying union members to picket tonight’s School Committee meeting at Warwick Veterans Junior High School and again outside the Gorton Administration Building on Thursday, due to an assertion that Superintendent Philip Thornton and the school administration has “reneged” on delivering pay raises by Dec. 21, a date that Netcoh asserts was agreed upon and legitimized by a signed document between School Committee chairwoman Beth Furtado and Netcoh.
“The superintendent has informed me through our conversations that the Warwick School Committee plans to renege on all retro and salary payments due to teachers on Dec. 21, 2017 as per our agreement,” reads an email sent from Netcoh to the Warwick School Committee on Dec. 6. “Such an action is an unlawful labor practice and a repudiation of our agreement.”
The email goes on to request immediate answers on whether or not the retro raises will be paid as agreed upon or not and threatens to file an Unfair Labor Practice complaint and “breach of contract action” if the raises are not received.
Per the new contract, the teachers are primed to earn an actualized 1 percent retroactive pay raise effective from March 1, 2017 until to the end of August 2017. Additionally, the teachers were awarded a 3 percent pay increase on top of that retroactive raise, scheduled to begin on Oct. 1, which would be their new salary for the remainder of the school year.
The salary increases were reportedly scheduled to be reflected in the teachers’ next paycheck – which they receive bi-weekly – on Dec. 21, and they were scheduled to receive a separate check for the retroactive pay raise the same day.
Last week, Thornton sent an email to teachers indicating that the school department wouldn’t be able to include retroactive or proactive pay raises in the Dec. 21 check because the Warwick City Council has not yet given them access to the $3.3 million that was withheld from the department during the FY18 budget hearings, which they ruled would be allocated once a contract was reached to cover the increased salary costs.
“Since the WTU officially ratified the agreement, we have worked tirelessly to get on the December City Council Agendas without any success,” Thornton wrote in the email to teachers. “Accordingly, it does not appear that we will be able to meet the Dec. 21st payroll goal.”
Thornton added that the School Committee will appear before the council on Jan. 3, and the earliest the funds could be voted on for approval was Jan 17. With this timeline, teachers wouldn’t see a paycheck reflective of their pay increases until early February.
However, Netcoh maintained during an interview on Friday that the Dec. 21 date for receiving pay increases was not merely a “goal” but was written down on a document as a stated part of the contract agreement prior to the Union ratifying it, and that the administration is now in breach of that agreement.
“On Nov. 20, the chair of the School Committee [Bethany Furtado] signed a document with the date of Dec. 21, 2017 to be the date that the 3 percent raise was to begin, and that the retro-checks were to be paid,” Netcoh said. “On Nov. 21 the union ratified the CBAs based on this information on this document. Teachers want to receive the pay for which they are entitled.”
A separate email from Netcoh to the teachers, sent on Dec. 7, revealed that the union is not going to accept Thornton’s explanation regarding the inability to secure a date to speak before the council and are putting him on the hook to deliver on the pay raises.
“In his e-mail he seems to blame the City Council for his decision not to pay us on Dec. 21, 2017,” reads the email. “You need to know that the City Council is blameless in this matter. The Superintendent should have worked better with the City Council and, at this point, the Superintendent should request that the school committee vote to use funds that it currently possesses to honor its contractual obligations with the Warwick Teachers' Union.”
Ward 5 City Councilman and chair of the council finance committee Ed Ladouceur was outraged by Superintendent Thornton’s email to teachers. Of delaying payment until council approval of additional school funds, he said Thornton “threw the council under the bus.” He said he has received more emails on this issue than any other he has dealt with as a member of the council.
Ladouceur was incredulous that the department would say it doesn’t have the funds to pay for the raises, observing that the department has a full year of funding and is barely at the six-month mark in its budget.
“They need to take care of their financial responsibility,” said Ladouceur.
Furthermore, he noted, it was the school administration that made the agreement to make payment by Dec. 21, “so they need to pay the bill.”
School Chief Budget Officer Tony Ferrucci said delaying the payment of raises and retroactive salary increases until the council releases funds aren’t a matter of cash flow but budgetary requirements. He said he is legally bound to have a balanced budget. Appropriating funds that aren’t budgeted would be in violation of state law and could subject the department to an investigation from the state auditor general.
Apart from that, Ferrucci said, “If I made this payment, you [the council] would say you don’t need the money [additional appropriation] and we’re not going to pay.”
Ladouceur called the argument “the Ferrucci shell game.” He said the department has no way to forecasting to the penny its salary requirements.
“It’s a moving target on payroll,” he said. His point is that the raises can be paid for out of the budget prior to allocation of the funds withheld by the council.
What of the reasoning that the council would withhold the appropriation as scheduled on the basis that the school department showed it doesn’t need the funds?
“That’s crap,” retorted Ladouceur. “It’s perfectly clear the money was set aside for the contract,” he said.
Netcoh described the situation as just another example of how the school administration has tried to vilify teachers without shouldering any of their own responsibility.
“The ink is not even dry on our collective bargaining agreement and already they are violating it,” she said. “If the superintendent and the School Committee want labor peace, then they need to stop playing games. Now everyone should understand what the teachers have been dealing with over the last three years. The superintendent is blaming the City Council the way he's blamed us.”