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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 12, 2012

Another impasse in GCSD negotiations

GUILDERLAND — The school district and the Guilderland Employees Association have reached an impasse in contract negotiations.

“We’re not looking for the world,” said the GEA’s lawyer, Thomas Jordan. “Costs are going up for our members — food and gas — like everyone else. They need a fair wage.”

“Our resources are declining,” said the school board’s president, Colleen O’Connell; she noted the state’s adoption of a 2-percent tax levy limit, which can be overridden only by 60 percent of the public’s vote. “If we want to do next year exactly what we’re doing this year,” said O’Connell, “we have to cut $3.3 million.”

In the last two years, the district has cut about 100 jobs.

The GEA’s two-year contract expired on June 30, 2011. That contract took a year to negotiate and, while the union initially asked for 5-percent raises in addition to step increases, it eventually settled on no salary raises.

The GEA, which is unaffiliated, has about 200 members, including cooks and cashiers, food service workers, bus drivers and bus aids, building maintenance mechanics, auto mechanics and bus garage helpers, custodial workers, and groundskeepers.

It is the district’s second largest union, behind the teachers’ association, which also has an expired contract. In November, the district declared an impasse with the teachers’ union.

The impasse with the GEA was declared jointly.

“At our last meeting, we both recognized we were very far apart,” said Lin Severance, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources. “We agreed we should request help from outside.”

Jordan agreed with Severance that negotiators had met in five sessions, each lasting two to three hours. “The district was at one end, and we were at the other,” he said. “The district is saying, wage freeze and higher health care contributions from employees…We’re really flexible. We’d like to see our steps and a moderate increase.”

The declaration of impasse allows for the appointment of a mediator by the Public Employment Relations Board.

“In a situation where parties agree we’re worlds apart, it’s helpful to have a third party come in,” said Severance.

The district first met with union representatives in April 2011, Severance said, and last met on Nov. 29.

Raises for district leaders

Jordan issued a press release this week, quoting GEA President William Young as saying, “We are looking for a fair deal which must include some recognition that, in the last contract negotiations in 2008, we are the people that stepped up when the district said to us they needed help.

“What really bothers us about those negotiations is that, while we were listening to the district negotiators plead their financial difficulties, the school administrators, which had already recommended several other unions receive significant raises, gave raises to themselves. Now, they want us to believe them when they say all they can offer us is a wage freeze and increased contributions by our members to their health insurance premiums.”

The release goes on to name the district’s three assistant superintendents and list their salaries from the last contract. As The Enterprise reported in March 2011 (online at www.AltamontEnterprise.com under Guilderland archives for March 24, 2011) when the contract was finalized, the three assistant superintendents, with salaries ranging from $121,985 to $136,612, agreed to pay roughly 30 percent of their health-insurance costs, rather than the 20 percent Guilderland employees typically pay.

“They had not had a raise in a couple of years,” O’Connell said this week. “It was almost a wash for the district,” she said of the trade-off.

O’Connell went on, “I don’t think it’s true that we’re enriching the highest paid. The superintendent declined to accept the 1-percent raise she was entitled to.”

O’Connell also said, “We see members of the GEA as partners in our children’s education.” At the same time, she said that board members are stewards of the district’s finances.

In 2010, when then-Superintendent John McGuire asked each of the district’s 12 bargaining units to consider wage freezes, only the three-member unit of assistant superintendents and their six-member district-office staff did so. (Several other units made smaller concessions, like working a day less or paying a slightly higher percentage of health-insurance costs.)

In March 2011, two of the nine school board members — Barbara Fraterrigo and Emilio Genzano — voted against the assistant superintendents’ contract.

“We voted against the structure, not the concept,” Genzno said at the time. “My vote was to limit the raises so the pension numbers didn’t increase. The compromise was, after a long debate, that it was only a one-year deal, so we can go back to the table again next year.”

Fraterrigo agreed. “This group has been very generous in what they offered for their fantastic services,” she said at the time. “But the taxpayer is still on the hook — if you increase the salary, you increase the pension…We just keep piling on for future years.”

Jordan said this week of the district administrators, “We felt, when they came to us and said the economic climate has changed significantly, we were going to be part of a process where everyone would sacrifice. We just didn’t see that happen. The district administrators made gains when we were asked to take less.”

Jordan conceded the administrators had more education and greater responsibilities than GEA members, and concluded, “But the numbers show these people have not been leading by example.”

Other settlements

In February 2011, the board ratified a three-year contract with the Guilderland School Administrators’ Association, which added 3.5 percent to the 2009-10 base salaries for the association’s 10 members. The salaries ranged from $75,000 to $107,463.

In May 2011, the board approved a one-year contract with the Guilderland Principals’ Association, giving the eight members no pay raises but adjusting their contributions to health-insurance costs accordingly; the salaries ranged from $95,000 to $127,710.  Of the seven board members present for the vote, one dissented. Again, Fraterrigo cited pension costs as her reason for voting against it.

In November 2011, the board approved a two-year contract with its 12-member Non-Instructional Supervisory and Other Management Personnel unit.  In the first year, the members get a 1.85-percent raise, and in the second year, they get none. The salaries range from $36,000 to $103,005.

Expired contract

At the conclusion of the GEA negotiations in June 2010, Michael Liegeot, who was then the president, said, “When we first went into negotiations, the times weren’t so bad. It kept getting worse and worse. We were in fear of losing more employees than we already are.”

Under the former four-year contract, mechanics and groundskeepers earned the most, making $15.25 on the first step and $22.39 on the top, 10th step. Substitute bus drivers earned the least, starting at $9.87 an hour and going up to $13.44 on the top step. Food-service workers started at $10.42 and went up to $13.98 on the top step.

In the first year of the now-expired contract, from the 2008-09 school year to 2009-10, the increase from one step to the next was 2.98 percent. In the second year, from 2009-10 to 2010-11, the increase from step to step was 3.03 percent.

Workers on the top 10th step got an increase in pay of 40 cents an hour.

At the time, comparing the pay for Guilderland workers with those in other Suburban Council school districts, Severance said, “We’re just a hair below the median.”

While the school board vote for the contract was unanimous, the union vote was 120 to 60 in favor of the contract.

“Some people said we deserve more,” Liegeot said at the time. “A lot of us thought, ‘We have good jobs and good health insurance, and we’re in it for the kids.’”

Asked this week if there is a trade-off between giving raises and keeping jobs, Severance said, referring to Richard Weisz, “The prior board president contended, if we can’t pay for all of those employees, then ultimately we’re going to have to reduce the number of employees…We certainly didn’t discuss that in negotiations,” said Severance, concluding, “It probably is a trade-off.”

She went on, “At some point, it comes down to what the community can afford to pay. With the rising health-care costs, and the rising benefits and retirement contributions…we just might not be able to pay for all of the employees we have, so the solution is to reduce the number of employees.”

Responding to Young’s assertion in the release about workers’ hours being cut back — “These employees saw a dramatic decrease in their take-home pay,” he said — Severance said that, as part of the budget process, after-school bus runs were reduced. Also, with the advent of full-day kindergarten, middle-of-the-day bus runs were no longer needed, which also contributed to cutting back hours.

“We made changes for educational reasons,” she said. “It was not meant to result in the reduction of employees. We think we’ve done a good job of clearly articulating the economic state.”

Jordan said that the cutback in hours “is subject to grievance.” “A significant number of members are already making significantly less than two years ago,” he said. He also noted that, two years ago, the GEA had over 220 members and it now has just under 200.

Jordan also said the district began negotiations by asking that current members pay more than 20 percent of their health-care costs, but is now asking that of new hires only. Jordan believes that, rather than asking for additional contributions from workers, the district should explore other methods of saving with health-care costs. He mentioned setting up a health insurance trust, using Canadian pharmacies, auditing to see what services are used by members and cutting back accordingly, and setting up health savings accounts to allow the district to get dollar-for-dollar deductions not included in gross income.

Jordan also said that the GEA hired an economist — Kevin Decker of Decker Economics in Valatie — to do a comprehensive financial study of the district. The report, he said, has not been made public.

 “He did an analysis of the district’s ability to pay employees and his conclusion was the district could afford a modest salary increase for GEA members,” said Jordan.

Decker did not return a call for comment yesterday.

“None of that information has been shared with the district,” said Severance of Decker’s report. “We have no way to confirm or deny the claims.”

At the upcoming “Community Conversation” on Jan. 17, Severance said, “We’ll continue to share with the community and keep them abreast of what we’re doing….We’re trying to be responsible about what we spend. We want to provide our children with equal if not better educational opportunities by re-deploying resources more appropriately.”

Severance concluded, “We have a great deal of empathy for all of our employees. We try to provide good working conditions and fair wages while still being fiscally responsible to the community.”

Young’s final statement was, “That’s all we are looking for, some fairness to our members. Most of them make between $10 and $20 per hour and many work less than 40 hours, so even a modest increase will mean a lot to them.”

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

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