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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, November 24, 2011
Teachers want “a fair deal”
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND The economic downturn that has led large unions of state workers to give up raises in order to keep jobs has stymied talks here between the school district and its teachers’ union.
On Monday, the district announced that it had declared an impasse with the Guilderland Teachers’ Association over the terms of a new contract.
“It’s unfortunate that the district chose to go to impasse,” said Maceo Dubose, the president of the GTA, on Tuesday. He went on, “I’m optimistic we’ll work something out.” He said of the nearly 500 union members, “We’re looking for something that’s fair to taxpayers, teachers, and the district.”
Colleen O’Connell, president of the Guilderland School Board, also said the district wants to meet the needs of its dedicated staff while still being fair to Guilderland taxpayers.
O’Connell noted that the district’s three assistant superintendents Neil Sanders for business, Lin Severance for human resources, and Demian Singleton for instruction began meeting with union representatives last December. “After 20 meetings,” she said, “the three assistant superintendents felt they needed to do something different…They advised the board and the board accepted.”
The board made the decision in executive session after its Nov. 1 public meeting. The state’s Open Meetings Law allows contract negotiations to be discussed in closed session.
No board vote was taken, said O’Connell. Eight board members were present, she said, and they reached consensus to declare an impasse. It then took time, she said, for the school’s lawyer to complete the necessary paperwork.
The declaration of impasse allows for the appointment of a mediator by the Public Employment Relations Board.
“Ideally,” O’Connell told The Enterprise, “we’d like to reach an agreement in time to include the figures in the 2012-13 budget.” She expects the first meeting with a PERB mediator will take place in January.
If an agreement isn’t reached before the budget is drafted, O’Connell said, the figures for GTA members would be based on the existing three-year contract, which expired in June, and would include the “step” raises built into the contract.
Guilderland teachers progress up a 23-step schedule. The expired contract ran from July 1, 2008 to June 30, 2011, granting, in addition to the step increases, 4.7-percent raises in the first year, 4.4 percent in the second year, and 4.4 percent again in the third year.
Larry Tuxbury, a middle-school English teacher, was the GTA’s chief negotiator for that contract as he is for the current contract negotiations.
A teacher on the first step in 2008-09 earned $42,000 while a teacher on the highest step earned $71,909. The GTA, in addition to teachers, includes guidance counselors, school social workers, librarians, registered school nurses, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech therapists.
Guilderland currently has an $89 million budget and, as is typical of school budgets, about three-quarters pays for salaries and benefits. With close to 500 members, the GTA accounts for nearly half of the district’s employees.
The Guilderland Employees Association with about 200 members, including bus drivers, custodians, and food-service workers is the second largest of the district’s 12 bargaining units. The GEA agreed on a contract in June of 2010, ending 15 months of difficult negotiations. That retroactive two-year contract expired on June 30, 2011. The GEA had originally asked for 5-percent raises in addition to step increases, but, as the economy worsened, the GEA ended up with just the incremental year-to-year step increases, and no raises.
Although neither Dubose or O’Connell would itemize the major sticking points in the current negotiations, Dubose said, “It’s not hard to guess whatever costs money.”
The district has cut close to 100 jobs in the last two years as, faced with cuts in state and federal aid, rising costs for health care and pensions, and a stagnant tax base, it has worked to close multi-million-dollar budget gaps.
In addition to salaries, the district has traditionally paid 80 percent of health-care costs while employees have shouldered the other 20 percent. Pension payments are set by the state and have been escalating in recent years as Wall Street has faltered, decreasing returns on investments, leaving districts to pick up a larger share of the tab.
This fall, before negotiations started, The Enterprise asked Severance, who is in charge of personnel for the district, if she saw a trade-off between raises and keeping jobs. “We don’t look at it in terms of, if you reduce your workforce, you can have a bigger raise,” Severance said. “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 continued, “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.”
“We recognize the situation with the economy,” Dubose said this week of the GTA members. “We’re willing to make short-term sacrifices because of the hardship but not long-term.”
While he declined to say how long “short-term” would be, Dubose did define long-term: “Long-term would affect members’ careers,” he said.
This fall, as the GTA and the district were gearing up for negotiations, both sides said they were looking forward to using the district’s longstanding collaborative approach.
“It’s very unique,” said Severance in October. “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.”
“Having a mediator come in is a change for the teachers’ association and the district,” Dubose said on Tuesday. “We’ve always done that across the table without a third party.”
His predecessor, Chris Claus, now retired, called the approach “a leap of faith.”
O’Connell believes the approach will still be collaborative, with a mediator to help move the process along.
“The really important thing is…we realize we have a committed staff,” she said, “and we want to work collaboratively with them to reach a settlement. We don’t want this to be an adversarial process but, at the same time, on looking forward after 20 negotiation sessions, we just feel as a district that we need outside help and so we have elected to take the next step in the process.”
Asked about the effect on morale, Dubose, a middle school counselor, said, “People aren’t happy…but Guilderland teachers are still going about our jobs as if we had a contract…Teachers are still there well before and well after the work day. They are doing their jobs as they always have.”
He concluded, “I’d like to emphasize we’re looking for a deal that’s fair for all.”