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Parents Weigh In on Negotiations

Posted on 24 September 2009

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Contract negotiations between the Sag Harbor School District and teachers might be at a standstill, but that doesn’t mean the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor (TASH) isn’t hitting the pavement to educate the community on their position. From wearing tee-shirts to picketing, TASH is making its concerns known in the district.

But at an informational session held by TASH last Thursday, parents were given the opportunity to ask questions of both TASH members and the school board, as board president Walter Wilcoxen and board member Mary Anne Miller attended the event.

TASH President Eileen Kochanasz kicked off the session with a brief overview of negotiations thus far which started in February of 2008. Since the beginning of the process, Kochanasz contended that the board has employed a rigid style of bargaining.

“The message to TASH was either you take the package we are offering you this evening or we are done for the night,” remarked Kochanasz. She added that it is rare for a Long Island school to be stalled in the negotiation process after using a mediator and a fact finder.

Following Kochanasz, Pierson math teacher Jim Kinnier gave a brief overview of the fact finder’s report and how the fact finder’s recommendations stacked up with the teacher’s proposal and the board’s proposal.

Parent and former Parent Teacher Association President Chris Tice, however, didn’t speak to the particular demands of the other side but was aggrieved by the negotiation process.

“The fact is that this has been going on for more than 20 months. I think this is a bad model and we are asking for a different process,” stated Tice. “Why hasn’t the process been more productive? Why hasn’t there been a forum for the two parties to speak freely with one another?”

Wilcoxen said the board understood her concerns, but felt the style in the past wasn’t fair to the district. Earlier Kochanasz explained that the standard form of bargaining is for representatives from both sides to come to the table knowing on which items they will compromise. However, Wilcoxen maintains the board didn’t favor this method.

“It is like playing cards,” said Wilcoxen during a later interview. “We looked at what our future liabilities are because of the increases in health care and retirement benefits … We looked at the data and came up with our best offer.”

The economic issues associated with the proposals were at the forefront of other parent’s minds. Steve Clarke asked Kinnier if TASH considers the taxpayer’s ability to bear the increases when discussing their proposal. He added that the district has a finite amount of money and these monetary increases could come at the cost of class size and programming. TASH is asking for an annual 3.9 percent salary increase, though they maintained this percentage is up for negotiation, while the board is offering a 2.5 percent increase.

“I look at other districts [like ours] and see that they can do it. We believe our school can make that same kind of commitment,” responded Kinnier, citing the annual teacher salary increases at both East Hampton and Southampton School Districts. “We are only asking for what teachers are getting in other districts.”

According to Kinnier, East Hampton awarded their teachers a 3.75 percent increase for the 2008-2009 school year and 4 percent increase for this year. At Southampton, teachers were given a 3.5 percent annual raise for last year and for 2009-2010.

The teacher’s contracts in East Hampton and Southampton expire in June 2010 and their negotiations are likely to begin in January of next year. As other boards review teacher compensation during the bargaining process, school superintendent Dr. John Gratto believes other districts will begin to rethink their teacher compensation packages in a similar fashion to Sag Harbor.

“Those contracts in neighboring districts were negotiated before the recent fiscal crisis. Going forward settlements [in these districts] will call for smaller increases than in the past … We all know the fiscal climate of the state. We aren’t going to get as much help in state aid. We all know health insurance costs are going up,” stated Dr. Gratto, who wasn’t present at the meeting. “We should pay employees fairly … [but] we are trying to strike a balance.”

David Diskin, a Sag Harbor parent, noted at the meeting that the financial capabilities of the Sag Harbor School District perhaps couldn’t be compared to Southampton or East Hampton. He added that the members on the board were elected for their commitment to education.

The recent history of negotiations has appeared to have already sown the seeds of anger amongst some teachers and the district.

“I started in 1975 and I was proud to work here until now,” teacher Cathy Meyerhoff passionately stated, though she noted that she wasn’t speaking on behalf of TASH. “My heart hurts with what is going on and how the district is treating us. You don’t understand what this is doing to morale.”

Kochanasz noted TASH will most likely host another event in October.

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