By Claire Walla
“All in favor?”
This question, a common formality at all school board meetings, rarely carries as much weight as it did this past Monday when Sag Harbor School Board members met inside the Pierson High School library to vote on teachers’ contracts.
Making no attempt to mask their relief, all six board members present uttered a resounding “aye”—and the room filled with applause. Board member Ed Drohan was absent from the meeting, and when asked later how he would have voted declined to say.
The decision marks the end of more than two years of heated negotiations, during which the Sag Harbor School District and the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor (TASH) fought over the financial details of teachers’ contracts, which expired in August 2008.
The primary issues in the negotiations concerned salary hikes and health care costs. Based on the contract details finally passed on Monday, the term of the agreement runs from July 1, 2008 through July 1, 2013.
Teachers will retroactively receive a 2.5 percent salary increase for each of two years through June, 2009. For the current school year, teachers will receive an additional 2.6 percent.
For the 2010-11 school year teachers will receive a 2.65 percent increase, in 2011-12 they will receive a 2.7 percent increase and in the final year of the agreement, 2012-13, they will receive a 2.6 percent raise.
The increases are nearly one percentage point lower than a fact-finder’s report had suggested, and less than the nearly four percent argued for by the teachers union.
These salary increases are in addition to the “step” increases that average about 2.7 percent each year.
However, both parties were content as school board members were finally able to breathe a sigh of relief, having approved all details of the contracts, which had been approved by the teachers union last Thursday, December 4.
“This is probably one of the most difficult things we do because we know a lot of the staff,” school board president Walter Wilcoxen said moments before the vote. “[Negotiations] had gotten very bitter, and I hope it never happens again that way. But, this agreement allows us to turn the page in a positive fashion.”
“It was long and hard for us,” said Eileen Kochanasz, president of TASH. “But my teachers are at peace with the settlement and we’re happy to have this behind us.”
Pierson math teacher Jim Kinnier, who also played an active role advocating for the teachers union over the past months, added: “Nobody got everything, but it’s as balanced and fair as possible.”
Teachers initially came to the bargaining table hoping to receive salary increases of 3.9 percent, commensurate with salary increases in neighboring districts. But the board took a hard-line stance against such pay increases, evoking the tough economic times.
“This agreement is very consistent with what the board had offered all along,” said school superintendent Dr. John Gratto.
He added that the district budgeted for a 2.5 percent salary increase (and a more conservative 2.7 percent increase this year) since contracts expired in 2008. So these funds, which were kept in the school’s general fund, will be paid retroactively to all teachers on December 25 of this year.
The new contracts also allow for alternative health insurance options, a point the board emphasized as a cost-saving measure. In the past the district has been locked into the New York State Health Insurance Program (NYSHIP), the price of which continues to rise. So, while teachers are still able to take advantage of state insurance, Dr. Gratto said he will now explore other health insurance options that offer a lower premium. Besides, he added, “[NYSHIP] probably offered more than most teachers needed.”
The ability to pay less might be even more attractive to teachers now that their contribution fees to their insurance plans have increased. Retroactive to July 1, 2010, teachers will pay 17.5 percent of health insurance costs, up from the 15 percent they have paid in the past. Also decreasing will be the amount teachers receive for supervising the cafeteria during lunch periods. By reducing the pay by $8.80, bringing it down to $17.25, Dr. Gratto estimates the district can save about $19,000 a year.
Finally, beginning July 1, teachers will be required to post information online using school e-boards. Such information will include course descriptions, homework assignments, grading policy, grades, project and test dates and attendance records. Coaches as well will be required to post practice times and game schedules.
Though the details of the contracts were not discussed at the school board meeting — the district’s lawyers are currently drafting the final version — both parties seemed poised to celebrate their new agreement, and take this as a learning experience going into the future.
All who spoke on the matter — including Dr. Gratto, Kochanasz, Kinnier and school board members Wilcoxen, Dan Hartnett and Chris Tice — agreed. And during the public comment session, community member Walter Tice elaborated: “Now is the time for both parties to examine their participation in the process which just ended. Do that. Put it in writing and convey it to subsequent boards. If you turn and leave right now with relief and don’t look back, you will make the same mistakes again.
“Give the next board your insight about what went wrong this time,” Tice added.
And for the second time that night, there was applause.