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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, July 17, 2008
School workers frozen on steps
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND As school-district workers enter the final year of a four-year contract, they are being frozen on the same step of a 10-step salary scale where they were last year.
“Our raises are implemented on July 1,” said Bruce Shank, president of the Guilderland Employees’ Association. “They froze everybody.” The GEA has nearly 200 members, including bus drivers and monitors, food-service workers, and maintenance workers.
Some bus drivers are outraged by the freeze. The contract was passed overwhelmingly with no mention made of the step freeze, said one driver. “I read the contract before voting on it,” he said. “There’s no step freeze in there.”
The Enterprise filed a Freedom of Information Law request for a copy of the contract. Appendix A includes a chart for each year of the contract, detailing the step increases. Nowhere does it indicate a freeze.
It was the district’s understanding that the contract with the Guilderland Employees’ Association froze members on step as part of both the 2007-08 and the 2008-09 salary schedules, said Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Susan Tangorre.
“We spent, my goodness, 20-some sessions negotiating this contract,” Tangorre told The Enterprise last week. “We worked very, very hard on this....An error was made by the district in the calculations of those salaries,” she said of the salaries in the last two years of the contract.
A salary increase of 3.9 percent was accounted for if the steps were frozen, she said. “That was our agreement...It was read by Neil and I and Thomas Jordan,” she said of herself, Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders, and the GEA lawyer. (Jordan did not return calls from The Enterprise over the last three weeks.)
“The percentage was correct if it was frozen,” said Tangorre. “The moneys were correct.”
Shank agreed that the workers are getting the 3.9-percent raise. But, he said, what he signed is what he expects his members to receive. He also pointed out that the school board had approved the contract before it was brought to the GEA for ratification.
Asked about Tangorre’s assertion that negotiators had agreed upon the frozen steps, he said, “We negotiated for over a year-and-a-half. A lot of things were discussed and offered on both sides…When I got the final draft, that’s what I agreed to and signed. That’s the reason we have a contract.”
Shank went on, “With today’s economics, people need everything they can live on. Our average kitchen people get three hours a day [of work]. Many of them are retired people. God bless ’em, I don’t know how they get by. Our taxpayers don’t realize how little they make.”
According to the Appendix A chart for the next school year, custodians, mechanics, and groundskeepers earn the most, making $15.25 on the first step and $22.39 on the top, 10th step. Substitute bus attendants earn the least, starting at $9.87 an hour and going up to $13.44 on the top step. Food-service workers start at $10.42 and go up to $13.98 on the stop step.
The mistake wasn’t discovered until this March. “Last year, on July 1, we got our raises,” said Shank, who works as a bus driver. “We went almost eight-and-a-half months without them realizing their mistake. I’m a Guilderland taxpayer, too. Boy oh boy…that’s a big money mistake.”
Asked how much money was involved, Shank said he had made calculations based on his own salary. As a bus driver, working six hours a day, or 30 hours a week, he said the amount of the step raise for his 11 months of work is $800.
Shank went on to describe what happened when the mistake was realized. “We got called into a meeting,” he said. “They were looking to take it all back from our people. It was very upsetting.”
“The fact that employees were incorrectly advanced in step for the 2007-08 school year was not known until later in the year,” Tangorre wrote in a June 30 letter to bus drivers and attendants.
Tangorre’s letter illustrates this, saying, “You will find that your salary notice will show that you have been placed on the same step as last year, but not at the same rate per hour.”
Tangorre provides these examples from Appendix A for the 2008-09 school year: A cook on step 3 who earns $11.43 per hour last year would receive a rate at step 3 of $11.88 for next year, an increase of 45 cents per hour, or 3.9 percent. In the same way, a custodial worker at step 10 who earned $17.91 last year would earn $18.61 at step 10 next year, an increase of 70 cents per hour or 3.9 percent.
Tangorre told The Enterprise, “This is the last thing we wanted to happen...It just needed one line on page 33 and one line on page 34,” she said, referring to the salary schedules in Appendix A for last year and next year.
Tangorre concluded, “There’s a difference of opinion. We don’t want to harm these employees. They have gotten the negotiated increase.”
“People are really edgy,” a veteran bus driver told The Enterprise on June 17, the day a notice was posted at the bus garage.
The GEA notice told the members not to sign an annual letter of employment.
Tangorre said of the annual letters, “It’s really a courtesy on the part of the district to tell employees what their salaries will be.” Signing it, she said, means they acknowledge their salary. “It’s a double check, helping people to read their own contract and see if it’s accurate.”
Some drivers worried if they didn’t sign it, they could be charged with insubordination.
“There are no repercussions,” said Tangorre of not signing the letter.
The GEA and the district have been negotiating to settle the matter.
“With any contract, there are differences of interpretation from time to time,” said Sanders, the district’s assistant superintendent for business. “Most of them are minor.” This one is unusual, he said, because it involves salary.
“We’re discussing the interpretation of the contract with the association,” said Sanders. “There are different ways to read it....Because it’s negotiations, that’s all I can say.“
Shank was more forthcoming.
The district made an offer, he said, that the raise for the last two years would be 2.5 percent, rather than 3.9 percent. “If we accepted that, they wouldn’t take our people’s money back,” he said. Shank never took that proposal to the rank and file. “We didn’t feel it was a fair offer,” he said.
The GEA then came up with a proposal, he said, “that everybody within the step system gets two-and-a-half percent, plus the step increase. The top step would get a 3.9-percent increase,” he said. “In that proposal, we offered that new people, starting after July 1, would pay 25 percent of their health-insurance costs.” Currently, employees pay 20 percent, and the district pays 80 percent. The offer was denied on July 3, said Shank.
Shank said workers are upset and he’s not sure what to do next. “We’re thinking about another offer but really don’t know,” he said.
Jordan, the GEA’s attorney, and its executive board will meet today, July 17, he said, to discuss further action.
Shank, who has been president of the GEA for five years, entered office vowing to work with the district after some controversial years.
He’s become frustrated. “I’ve found the district, even on easy items to repair for people…we have very hard times to resolve small issues.”
He gave an example: One of his members suggested placing buckets of salt around the bus facility after a man slipped on the ice between buses, he said. “We never got it,” said Shank. “It would make better morale.”
Shank said he and his vice president, Michael Liegot, the head custodian at Westmere Elementary School, “have worked endless hours to make things better.”
Both Shank and Tangorre pointed to the fact, as a sign of positive progress, that there have been no grievances filed in the last five years. Shank said the transportation supervisor, Chris Sagendorf, is “good to her people.” But he added, “She’s only our boss and can only do so much.”
He concluded, “The people on our negotiating committee are just average people, making a living in life.”
Asked if he was angry or upset about the current impasse, Shank said, “I feel more confused than anything about it. As people, you should be able to sit down to resolve your differences in a friendly manner….My Dad always taught me, if you make a mistake in life…you do what you have to do to correct it. You pay for your mistake and make it good. Are we trying to make a whole group of people pay for somebody’s oversight?”