Sag Harbor Teachers and Administration Back to the Bargaining Table

Posted on 20 August 2009

Sag Harbor teachers and the local school administration are expected to soon be heading back to the negotiating table following a fact finder’s report whose opinions side largely with the teachers’ union. At issue has been a host of topics ranging from salary increases to insurance coverage to stipends for coaches.

Teachers Association of Sag Harbor (TASH) president Eileen Kochanasz said the teachers expressed their “extreme satisfaction” at a report filed on August 12 by Elliott D. Shriftman, a fact finder assigned after negotiations broke down in June 2008 and a mediator from the Public Employees Relations Board (PERB) failed to get the two parties together. PERB then appointed Shriftman to establish facts in the negotiations and offer recommendations.

While the teachers have announced they feel “vindicated” by the recommendations, the school administration has rejected Shriftman’s report, saying in a posting on the district’s website “it does not make recommendations on all issues separating the parties and/or makes recommendations that would impair the effective operations of the school district.”

“He left some pieces out,” said school superintendent Dr. John Gratto. “It’s like not completing a jigsaw puzzle.”

The parties have tentatively set September 2 as the first day back to negotiations.

“The district so wanted this fact finding process,” said Kohanasz in an interview Wednesday. “Seeing how this man looked at us objectively, I hope it opens the administration’s eyes in terms of the world at large.”

Perhaps the most significant of the fact finder’s determinations was a recommended increase in both the term of the new contract, and also the amount. While the school administration had recommended a term of three years for the contract, and TASH had recommended a five year agreement, the fact finder recommended four years.

Noting that the current contract is already a year past its expiration and the parties “have not reached even a tentative understanding on major issues,” Shrifton writes that it makes no sense to recommend a contract for three years, and thus recommends a four year agreement.

He also recommended more than a 14 percent increase in salaries over the term of that contract.

And this is perhaps the greatest sticking point, and where the parties are the furthest apart. The administration proposed an annual increase of 2.5 percent over the term of the agreement, totaling 10 percent in four years. The teachers’ union proposed a 3.9 percent annual increase over the same period, totaling 15.4 percent. The fact finder, taking salaries of comparable teachers into consideration and “in the context of the current and projected economic conditions” recommended an increase of 3.0 percent for the first year, 3.4 percent for the second year, and 3.9 percent for the last two years of the agreement, for a total of 14.2 percent.

“It is less than what we asked for,” said Kochanasz, “but we knew we had room to move.”

TASH had also proposed increases in the various steps or increases in salaries teachers receive with advanced degrees, but Shrifton chose not to make any recommendations here.

Another major issue was how teachers paid for health benefits in retirement. Currently, teachers who were hired after 2000 will contribute 15 percent of their health care benefits when they retire. The administration proposed changing that to all teachers, regardless of their hire date, would pay the 15 percent. TASH had rejected the proposal, and Kochanasz said it was unfair for a teacher to have already anticipated post-retirement expense and suddenly found an additional cost.

“When you walk in the door and have it explained how life will be, and then have the rug pulled out from under you; it’s unfair to have the rules changed on them,” said Kochanasz.

Instead, the fact finder has recommended maintaining the current language of the contract, but adding a paragraph stipulating that teachers hired after fall 2009 will pay 25 percent of their insurance benefit in retirement.

Among the other recommendations by the fact finder were $100 in compensation for teachers chaperoning on overnight field trips (TASH had asked for $145; currently there is none); institute disability insurance for teachers, along with the already-established “sick bank,” providing the district establish reasonable criteria for using the sick bank; binding arbitration for future disputes and offering alternative health insurance plans.

Kochanasz said TASH looks forward to resuming negotiations, but argues representatives from the administration in previous sit-downs have failed to negotiate, and have simply delivered proposals. She also urges the administration come to the table “in a different position.”

Gratto said the report “causes us to re-examine what we think is fair and appropriate,” but disagrees with Kochanasz’s interpretation of the previous negotiations.

“We’ve been willing to negotiate all along,” said Gratto. “We’ve just had a difference of opinion on some issues.”

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