“This is no longer about gray shirts … wearing them or not wearing them,” pronounced Teacher’s Association of Sag Harbor (TASH) President Eileen Kochanasz at the Sag Harbor School District’s board of education meeting on Monday, January 11. As her words reverberated throughout the Pierson High School library, the district’s teachers uniformly stood up and pulled off their gray shirts imprinted with the words “Year Two, No Contract” to reveal black ones with a new slogan, “Sag Harbor, District in Crisis.”
During a later interview, Kochanasz said the protest garb is meant to call attention to statements and actions allegedly made by the board, in regards to the tumultuous teacher contract negotiations, and to respond to public displeasure with the visibility of the gray shirts. The new black apparel will be worn by the teachers only on Monday and the educators will dress in regular attire for the rest of the school week. Kochanasz added that TASH members will continue to picket in front of school grounds on Fridays.
“[We were told by the public] if the shirts were not there, there would be more support. If we removed the shirts completely people would forget … The sole purpose [of the black shirts] is to keep the community aware that this issue is seriously unsettled for us,” said Kochanasz later in the week.
The new TASH garments are being met with disapproval by some parents in the community. Since TASH members arrived in the gray shirts on the first day of school in September, parent Laura Avedon said many parents repeatedly requested TASH wear regular clothes inside the classroom. She believes the new message might also be frightening for students especially those in the elementary school.
“The t-shirts are a menacing artifact of a dispute that belongs in the realm of adults only,” noted Avedon in an email. “When I got home from the Board of Education meeting . . . I had to explain to my elementary school daughter that tomorrow she was going to see new t-shirts on all her teachers, saying that the school district was in crisis. She was very concerned, since she knows the word crisis means a dire or life-threatening emergency. I explained to her that the district was not in crisis, and that no harm would come to her by going to school.”
Of the plan to only wear the shirts on Monday, Avedon said, “It should be no days a week. The children shouldn’t be involved … I think it harms them emotionally.”
A fellow parent, Glenn Lawton, added, “These semantics further fuel the polarity and only help to erode our collective ‘spirit.’”
Parent Bill Collage remarked, “I am very pro teacher. I think the gray t-shirts were very effective messaging and the penetration of the message is roughly 100 percent among the parents. The black t-shirts will be met with less regard, I’m willing to bet. I think the next great message in this process will be when they take the t-shirts off.”
Chris Tice added “I am supportive of a process where teachers have the right to publicly voice their position. I would prefer it not be done on shirts worn in front of our young children.”
Kochanasz said TASH members haven’t noticed the shirts negatively impacting the students adding that they are very sensitive and tuned into the children.
School superintendent Dr. John Gratto noted the teachers are allowed to dress in any manner they see fit as the teachers’ contract and the district policy doesn’t speak to attire.
For TASH, said Kochanasz, the black shirts merely hint at larger issues that have arisen since their contract expired in June 2008. Though the teachers’ contract expired, the provisions of the former contract will continue until a new one is settled. In a speech delivered at the board meeting on Monday, Kochanasz asserted the board discredited a Fact Finder’s report and his qualifications, saying he wasn’t given enough time to complete his work and his professional background focused on national sports leagues instead of school districts. In an interview, school board president Walter Wilcoxen noted the board felt the report was incomplete because the Fact Finder didn’t address all of the major issues and he was given just three days to submit his recommendations.
After learning that four teachers have submitted their resumes to neighboring school districts, Dr. Gratto said if he was in their position he would also apply elsewhere to make more money, claimed Kochanasz. In an interview, Dr. Gratto said he didn’t make that statement. Kochanasz noted, in her speech, that Dr. Gratto was awarded a 13.5 percent raise last June which she said is a “greater percentage raise in one year than the combined percentages of [the board's] offer to teachers over five years.”
But Kochanasz’s statement, contended Wilcoxen, doesn’t include a 2.7 percentage step increase, or additional money given for each year a teacher is employed in the district.
“In my opinion you have deliberately misled this community with your repeated assurances that your negotiators are prepared to stay all night to reach an agreement,’” added Kochanasz of negotiations so far. “Yet during our most recent sessions, we weren’t given one counter-proposal to any comprehensive proposal we made at the same session. It was always, ‘we have to adjourn to assess … or cost out.’”
“We have to cost out but they don’t,” argued Wilcoxen. “We came up with our best offer. We would love to come up with a contract that is good for them and an efficiency, i.e. cost savings to us.”
“This is not about people disagreeing. It’s about what happens when they do. They are marginalized, trivialized, dismissed in public, in the press and at cocktail parties,” continued Kochanasz, interjecting a claim that a school board member was heard referring to a parent who spoke at a previous board meeting as a “buffoon” at The American Hotel.
Of this incident, Wilcoxen said he didn’t know about the comment made but said, “We are a small community and haven’t board members been called worse in public?”
Dr. Gratto and school board member Mary Ann Miller believed the new shirts would have little effect on the progression of the negotiations.
“Picketing or attacking people or wearing t-shirts isn’t going to change the fact that both parties will have to reach an agreement they think is fair,” noted Dr. Gratto. He said the board made the last proposal at the last negotiation session on December 3.
Miller added, “I don’t think the protesting methods are doing a lot to sell their positions. I think the financial state of the economy in this country is what people are focusing on.”
At Monday’s meeting, community member and parent Brigid Collins said she believed as a superintendent of the district Dr. Gratto should represent the board and the teachers, and try to mediate a compromise. She said, “The board brought this person in to bring us to a place I am not sure we want to be. I am really hopeful this can stop.”
On another note, TASH’s charge with the Public Employee Relations Board accusing the board of pre-conditioned bargaining is still under review. However, another TASH charge asserting the board is bargaining in bad faith was found to be lacking evidence, noted PERB representative Monty Klein in a letter from December 30. TASH has the opportunity to file an amendment of the charges by January 15.