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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, October 21, 2010
As contract negotiations loom
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND The contract for the district’s biggest union the Guilderland Teachers’ Association expires at the end of June.
As is typical of school spending plans, about three-quarters of Guilderland’s $87.4 million budget is for salaries and benefits. With close to 500 members, the GTA accounts for nearly half of the district’s employees.
This month, as negotiations loom, district administrators and the union president all said they are hopeful the process will again be collaborative.
Last year, as the district faced cuts in state aid, rising costs for health care and pensions, and a stagnant tax base, the superintendent, in an unprecedented move, asked for concessions from Guilderland’s 12 unions. The two smallest units the central administrators and their support staff agreed to a wage freeze. Two of the larger units the teachers and the teaching assistants agreed to have each member give up a day’s pay. The concessions totaled about $220,000.
“The contracts we’re asking people to revisit this year are over next year,” said the school board’s president, Richard Weisz, in March. “We could say, until there’s more state aid, because we can’t afford it, there will be no raises.”
The chance for increased state aid next year looks slim, and federal stimulus money is slated to run out with this school year.
The Guilderland Employees Association with about 200 members, including bus drivers, custodians, and food-service workers agreed on a contract in June, ending 15 months of difficult negotiations. The retroactive two-year contract runs until June 30, 2011.
The GEA had originally asked for 5-percent raises in addition to step increases, but ended up with just the incremental year-to-year step increases, and no raises.
“When we first went into negotiations, the times weren’t so bad,” said the GEA president, Michael Liegeot, in June. “It kept getting worse and worse. We were in fear of losing more employees than we already are.”
In November of 2009, the district’s third largest unit, the Guilderland Teaching Assistants’ Association, agreed to a four-year contract that ran retroactively from July 1, 2008 to June 30, 2010 and gradually decreases the number of steps from 25 to 20. “It would take less time for a TA to earn a living wage,” said Cheryl Ainspan, vice president of the unit, at the time of the reduced number of steps, which teaching assistants climb through from year to year.
In the final year of the contract, first-step TAs will earn $11.25 an hour, and those of the top, 20th step will earn $21.25.
The contract did not address the number of teaching assistants, and TAs bore the brunt of the job cuts in the 2010-11 budget.
The current three-year teachers’ contract, which runs from July 1, 2008 to June 30, 2010, granted 4.7-percent raises in the first year, 4.4 percent in the second year, and 4.4 percent again in the third year.
Guilderland teachers progress up a 23-step schedule. A teacher on the fist step in 2008-09 earned $42,000 while a teacher on the highest step earned $71, 909.
During the first round of budget sessions this month, one citizen called for openness in the negotiation process.
Contract negotiations are allowed, by law, to be held in closed session.
“We need a candid display of viewpoints,” said the president of the GTA, Maceo Dubose, a middle-school counselor. “The final document is public,” he told The Enterprise last Friday. Having discussions in public, he said, would make it difficult to reach compromises.
Lin Severance, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources, agreed on the importance of confidential negotiations. “The conversation takes a lot of paths,” she said.
She also said, “One of the things we try not to do is play out the negotiating process in the community. We keep it closed.”
She explained, “The unit will elect representatives…who have met with their constituents.” As the GTA team negotiates with the district administrators, “They’re not reporting back to their unit either,” she said. “If negotiations were to play out in the larger group, they wouldn’t come to a conclusion very soon. It would be very difficult to satisfy everyone’s desire.”
Larry Tuxbury, a middle school English teacher, will again be the chief negotiator for the GTA, Dubose said.
Severance and Neil Sanders, the assistant superintendent for business, will negotiate for the district. This will be Severance’s first teachers’ contract negotiation for Guilderland; she came on just as the last one was agreed upon and did some work on the language. Severance and Sanders will be joined by the district’s third assistant superintendent, for curriculum and instruction, Demian Singleton.
“He has a great desire to learn about it,” said Severance. “He’s been in the district longer than either of us. He’s come up through the ranks.”
Severance described the negotiation process: “It begins with a letter from the unit with a request to open the negotiation process,” said Severance. No letter had been received as of Friday but she said, “It’s my understanding it will be forthcoming.”
Severance went on, “When that letter comes in, we’ll meet with the board of education, which sets parameters. We’ll negotiate within those parameters.”
The Enterprise asked the school board president this week what parameters the board might set.
“The board speaks as a board,” Weisz responded.
He went on, “I think everyone is aware of the challenges on resources…We’ll work as best we can with union negotiators and our negotiators to see what works.”
Asked if salary and health care would be major issues in the upcoming negotiations, Severance said, “I have no idea at this point what will be negotiated…. Salary is usually one of the key things.”
Before meeting with union representatives, the administrative team reviews the current contract. “If language is confusing, we might make recommendations to clarify the language,” Severance said, so that it isn’t misinterpreted. “The same thing happens on the union side. They discuss what they’d like to see enhanced or changed. We’ll then exchange proposals…We make a list of items we’d like to discuss…We take time to think about what is doable.”
Meetings are then set up where the items to be discussed are agreed upon; some may be dropped while others may be grouped together.
Asked if, going into negotiations, she sees a trade-off between raises and keeping jobs, Severance said, “We don’t look at it in terms of, if you reduce your workforce, you can have a bigger raise. We try to keep our salaries competitive.”
She noted that Guilderland’s teachers’ salaries are not at the top or the bottom of the Suburban Council, but, rather, in the middle.
Severance went on, “We’ve always made responsible decisions on behalf of the community. Some districts pride themselves in having the highest paid [staff]. We’re fiscally responsible.”
Both Dubose and Severance said they planned to follow Guilderland’s tradition of using a collaborative approach during negotiations. “It’s very unique….We’ve never had to bring NYSUT representatives,” she said referring to the New York State United Teachers, “or district legal counsel to the table. It’s a very collegial, very professional conversation. I can only expect that’s exactly how it will be this time”
The GTA is committed to a collaborative approach as well, Dubose said. “We think that’s the best way to come to a sound conclusion,” he said, adding, “Our goal is to negotiate a contract that’s fair to our members.”
Asked if the union would be willing to make trade-offs in salaries in order to keep jobs, Dubose said, “Any type of compromise is possible. We want to do what we can to protect members’ jobs.”
He concluded, “It’s hard to say what the end result will be.”
Marie Wiles, who started work as Guilderland’s superintendent on Oct 1, said this week, “What I’ve learned so far is there is a very professional, collegial, cooperative relationship between the board and the teachers’ association. Under these circumstances, I think we can reach an agreement that’s best for all parties.”
She stressed that such a collegial relationship is not found everywhere and said the district should be proud of it.
“I’m hopeful,” she concluded, “that this collegial, cooperative relationship will continue.”