By Marissa Maier
After more than two years of negotiating a new teacher’s contract, the Sag Harbor Board of Education and the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor (TASH) brokered a tentative agreement on Monday, September 13.
School superintendent Dr. John Gratto and TASH president Eileen Kochanasz both noted that the details of the contract will come to light once it is ratified by both parties. Dr. Gratto estimated an official memorandum of agreement will be released to the public in about a month.
“We have a handshake agreement. We agreed on the terms in a conceptual way and now they need to be put to paper,” Dr. Gratto remarked in an interview on Tuesday.
Kochanasz added, “Nothing is put in writing.”
The yet-to-be inked deal was arranged during a session with a super conciliator on Monday afternoon and evening.
A settlement will end multiple years of often bitter negotiations waged both in public and behind closed doors at bargaining meetings. According to a fact finder’s report released in August 2009, the parties started negotiating a new contract in February 2008, a few months before the existing contract expired on June 30, 2008. While TASH and the board have been discussing a new agreement, the educators in the district have been working under the terms of the former contract.
By the beginning of June 2008, the two sides had met six times and, having failed to come to a resolution, the New York State Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) assigned a mediator. Mediating sessions held on August 5 and 22, 2008 were similarly unsuccessful in resolving the parties’ disagreements. The case was then forwarded to a fact finder, a PERB appointee who was tasked with reading documents and listening to oral presentations offered by both sides and submitting a written recommendation.
The fact finder’s report ultimately appeared to favor many of TASH’s proposals, and the board responded by noting that the fact finder was only given a short time — a few days — to complete his findings and that many issues were left unanswered. In the report, the fact finder pointed out that the chief outstanding issues between the two parties were salary schedules (specifically percentage increases and schedule modifications), employee health insurance contributions, retiree health insurance contributions and the offering of alternative health plans.
Making slight headway in subsequent negotiation sessions, TASH filed formal charges against the board in December 2009 for allegedly bargaining in bad faith. When the charges finally reached a PERB Brooklyn courtroom in June 2010, Judge Phillip Maier, an administrative law judge with the state Public Employee Relations Board (PERB), urged the two parties to meet with a super conciliator in an effort to strike an agreement.
Judge Maier pointed out that his verdict would have no bearing on coming to a resolution, or the provisions of a new agreement. He assigned 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.
During Monday’s negotiation session, Kochanasz explained that the board and TASH camped out in different rooms with their legal representatives — attorney Tom Volz for the district and New York State United Teacher’s union counsel Rich D’Esposito — while proposals were ferried between the parties (school board president Walter Wilcoxen was out of the country, Dr. Gratto noted.)
“He was a clearing house of concepts, ideas and proposals. He was very assertive about it,” Kochanasz said of Scheinman. “He made suggestions. He listened to us and helped us to be creative. He helped us understand what could potentially happen and what was never going to happen.”
Dr. Gratto said he wouldn’t characterize Scheinman’s style as aggressive, but noted he was “straightforward.”
“If we had an idea he thought wasn’t going to fly he would tell us … He wasn’t beating around the bush,” Dr. Gratto noted.
“Beyond his efforts I think the contract was ripe to be settled,” he added, but didn’t elaborate on this statement.
“We closed the gap from what was separating us,” Dr. Gratto explained, pointing to general issues of salary, health insurance and the district’s ability to offer a variety of health plans. He noted that the board has been working on their proposal since February, but said their initial offer on Monday was similar to ones proposed in the past. Kochanasz added that TASH didn’t come to the table with specific amendments or a new proposal.
”The best way I could describe [Monday’s session] is it was the first real negotiation session with the back and forth and activity taking place,” she said.
Of the tentative agreement, Dr. Gratto remarked, “I think it is a contract that is not completely satisfactory to either side. It is a contract that treats teachers fairly and a contract that contains provisions that will serve the district well from an educational and fiscal perspective.”
The two confirmed that the memorandum of agreement will be crafted by Volz and D’Esposito and then forwarded to both parties for further review. Once the contract is ratified by the TASH membership, it will then be ratified by the board in public session. If finalized, the six year contract will expire in June 2014 and teachers will receive pay increases retroactive to 2008.