School board calls for negotiation mediation

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L to R: CEA negotiators Tara Sharkey, Kate Ellingson and Joe Cheney spent most of the Wednesday night session discussing salary proposals. (Photo by Tom Marble)

R to L: CEA negotiators Tara Sharkey, Kate Ellingson and Joe Cheney spent most of the Wednesday night session discussing salary proposals. (Photo by Tom Marble)

After four months of teacher contract negotiations, the Colchester School Board declared an impasse at its Wednesday evening session last week.

Stemming largely from an inability to find common ground on salary proposals, the impasse will halt upcoming negotiating meetings between the CSB and the Colchester Education Association, and the district will begin the process of hiring a neutral mediator.

“We know that declaring impasse is going to help us move forward by going to mediation,” CSB negotiator Lincoln White said. “We haven’t made much progress on salaries at all over the last four months. So we want to declare [impasse] tonight and start the step to go to mediation.”

Although the board’s negotiating team believed there was no way to make progress without mediation, the teacher’s union felt negotiations were cut short.

“We’re a little surprised,” CEA president Joe Cheney said. “There hasn’t really been an exchange of ideas yet. It seems like half those meetings have been canceled due to bad weather and the other half we feel like we spent a lot of time educating you guys on the healthcare.”

Despite the board’s view that declaring an impasse was not a sign of giving up, CEA member Kate Ellingson disagreed with the rationale.

“We came here today ready to negotiate,” she said. “We prepared something, and now it’s like we’re quitting.”

Because of the board’s decision, which was announced early in the two-hour session, school board members didn’t come with a new salary or healthcare proposal as both sides had discussed during the last negotiating meeting March 28.

The board’s most recent proposal, offered at the March 21 negotiating session, represents a 2.15 percent increase in 2017-18 base salary and a 2.2 percent increase over the subsequent two years.

Despite the agenda shift, the CEA pressed forward with its counter offer to rebut the board’s proposal it expected to hear.

The union’s new offer requested $43,883 for the 2017-18 base salary, approximately $517 less than its last proposal.

The association also dropped its ask from a 4.2 percent and 4.4 percent increase for 2018-19 and 2019-20, respectively, to a 2.8 percent increase and 3.1 percent increase, respectively.

“If we don’t raise the base, the talent pool that you’re going to get to select from in Colchester is going to be pretty barren,” Cheney said. “We already have issues with teachers coming for a year and going somewhere else.”

On healthcare, the CEA stuck to its previous offer, asking the district to pay 80 percent of the premium, fund 90 percent of an HRA for out-of-pocket expenses for employees who choose the Gold CDHP plan and prorate the HRA contribution on all other plans so costs are equal for the district.

Addressing the board’s goal to keep salary increases as close to inflation rates as possible, the CEA included an internal memo from district business manager George Trieb, citing a 3 percent inflation rate calculated by the New England Economic Partnership.

At the past negotiation session, the board stated it was basing its offers off a 1 to 2 percent inflation rate.

Talks also covered the total amount of new money needed to fund the salary grid. Voters approved $510,000 in the budget, but the board proposed spending $304,118 while the CEA proposed $506,500.

Cheney said the union proposal is below the amount approved by voters on Town Meeting Day in March, but White said that doesn’t mean the district should spend it all.

“We have to budget high because we don’t know what the numbers are going to be, and we can’t get caught short,” he said. “We don’t budget planning to see who wants the excess. We budget planning to give the excess back [to taxpayers] in the next tax season.”

As the meeting came to a close, both sides were unsure whether any meetings would be held during the impasse.

White, who previously represented the board during an impasse, said open communication led to a successful outcome before mediation finished.

The CEA, however, was not interested unless the board committed to coming up with a new proposal. On Sunday evening, both sides agreed not to meet again until mediation begins.

“If you guys don’t feel like you can come back with new numbers, I don’t think it makes sense for us to meet. We’re ready to keep negotiating,” Cheney said.