At around 10 a.m. on Wednesday morning, representatives for the Sag Harbor School Board and TASH (Teacher’s Association of Sag Harbor) entered a Brooklyn courtroom. Both parties were prepared to debate the merits of two bad faith bargaining charges filed by TASH against the district. By 12:30 p.m., the proceedings wrapped up with a wholly unexpected outcome.
Judge Phillip Maier, an administrative law judge with the state Public Employee Relations Board (PERB), suggested adjourning the case until October. In the meantime, Justice Maier recommended TASH and the school board meet with a super conciliator no later than August to work out an agreement on the teacher’s contract before the new school year.
School superintendent Dr. John Gratto said Justice Maier mentioned his legal inability to render a verdict on the substantive issues surrounding the negotiations. As the school district’s lawyer Tom Volz explained at a board of education meeting on Monday, even if Justice Maier found the district guilty of bargaining in bad faith the only directive he could make would be to order both parties back to the negotiating table. Justice Maier doesn’t have the power to make either side amend their proposals.
TASH president Eileen Kochanasz said the judge added that fully vetting the union’s charges would take longer than a day. He reportedly said his decision would most likely be finalized in the spring of 2011. In light of these potentially lengthy proceedings, it was at this time Justice Maier recommended using the services of a super conciliator.
Teacher contract negotiations started in February 2008, with the contract expiring on June 11 in that same year. With the parties officially declaring impasse on June 30, 2008, PERB hired a mediator which yielded little in the way of resolutions. A fact finder was then brought in to analyze data presented by both sides and make written recommendations in a report that was delivered in August 2009. The board felt the fact finder’s report, which sided largely with TASH, wasn’t entirely thorough. Negotiations resumed in an inconsistent fashion through the remainder of the year, though both parties noted some movement was made in certain areas.
“The purpose of bringing this all the way to Brooklyn was to get the board to move and negotiate,” Kochanasz remarked of Wednesday’s verdict. “The judge made this suggestion as a way to motivate negotiations.”
When teacher contract negotiations go from bad to worse to seemingly impossible, the last resort is apparently a super conciliator. This type of mediator appears to take a “glove’s off” approach to bargaining and both Dr. Gratto and Kochanasz described a super conciliator’s discussion style as aggressive.
Justice Maier appointed well-known super conciliator Martin Scheinman to work with the district and the union. According to his biography for Cornell University, where he teaches continuing education courses, Scheinman has worked in the field of contract arbitration for 25 years and has settled both public and private disputes. Having also worked as a fact finder, Scheinman has reportedly been involved in over 10,000 cases including the New York City transit strike in 2005.
“We have narrowed the issues [in dispute] since last summer. We have met six times since the fact finder’s report [was filed]. In those six sessions, we came closer to reaching an agreement,” Dr. Gratto noted. “I think an effective super conciliator will help even more.”
Dr. Gratto believed this recent development was a step in the right direction.
“We still need to work with each other in a way that furthers the education of children rather than squabbling with each other,” Dr. Gratto said.
When asked whether she was optimistic about the upcoming sessions with the super conciliator, Kochanasz replied, “I hope it is [but] I cannot tell if this will be successful or not.”
Kochanasz announced in an email to TASH last week that she was participating in a recently passed retirement incentive from New York State and would officially retire on July 1. Kochanasz will remain the president and lead negotiator in the contract dispute. She was re-elected union president in May, and said she has served in this capacity on-and-off for 20 years.
“It is good that I am available to see this through rather than someone new step in,” Kochanasz remarked in an interview on Tuesday. “It is my plan to be very available. In fact I can be more available [to the TASH membership] now.”
Kochanasz added that she confirmed with TASH’s state union representative to make sure she could continue as union president even though she is no longer employed in the district. The representative said no by laws prohibit this arrangement, Kochanasz explained.
If the board and TASH fail to work out a resolution with the super conciliator a hearing on the bad faith bargaining charges has been arranged for October 4 and 5, 2010.