As the sun receded into the horizon of Sag Harbor Cove, TASH President Eileen Kochanasz climbed up a bench in front of the windmill on Long Wharf. “You have arrived in the land of ‘No’,” warned Kochanasz to the crowd. A group of nearly 600 met in the late afternoon on Long Wharf on Monday afternoon to march in a TASH rally from Main Street to the Pierson High School. Members of TASH donned their grey shirts and were joined by teachers from Lindenhurst to Montauk to protest a recent stalemate in contract negotiations with the Sag Harbor School Board of Education. Negotiations between the two parties begun over twenty months ago. Despite working with a mediator and fact finder, TASH and the board are no closer to a settlement. TASH asserts the board remains unwilling to negotiate or yield their original positions.
“The board said ‘no’ to the fact finder’s report . . . ‘no’ to setting a date for negotiations in the future,” continued Kochanasz, whose words of scorn for the board were met with boos from the crowd. “This is unacceptable.” (The board has since reached out to TASH and suggested three dates to restart the negotiations. Kochanasz confirmed on Wednesday that TASH agreed to meet with the board on either October 30 or November 3.)
Richard D’Esposito, TASH’s representative from the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) union, took over the stage and read from a letter penned by NYSUT President Richard Iannuzzi.
“Dear Sisters and Brothers on behalf of the 600,000 [members of NYSUT] . . . Your fight is our fight,” said D’Esposito reading from the letter. D’Esposito explained that he has represented TASH for nearly 17 years. He said he is often asked by reporters if the state of affairs with the Sag Harbor teacher negotiations is unique.
“It is unusual,” D’Esposito remarked to the crowd. “We haven’t concluded negotiations because they have yet to begin . . . True negotiations are a give and take . . . Since 2008, we have seen a presentation [from the board] rather than negotiations.”
The board was further criticized by D’Esposito for rejecting the recommendations of the fact finder, who predominantly sided with the demands of the teachers, and claimed superintendent Dr. John Gratto discredited the fact finder’s expertise. Previously, school board president Walter Wilcoxen contended the fact finder privately admitted that he wasn’t given enough to conduct his report.
“That is patently untrue,” stated D’Esposito in a later interview as the wind off the bay waters whipped at his gray hair. The fact finder had around three days to review TASH and the board’s documentation and render a verdict on a settlement.
Once D’Esposito yielded the microphone to Kochanasz, she had a NYSUT representative point the way the group would take. With posters hoisted in the air, they traveled across the bridge, past La Superica, up Main Street, crossed the street at the Civil War Memorial, trekked down the other side of the sidewalk back to the Wharf and marched up to the Pierson High School campus as onlookers watched while eating dinner in restaurants or opening their cars.
At the school, TASH held a candlelight vigil which was cut short by freezing temperatures. The cold, however, failed to cool the teacher’s simmering resentments. During the board of education meeting held that evening, emotions were running high. Parents and teachers were strongly displeased that the board hasn’t solidified a date to begin negotiating again.
Wilcoxen argued that the board is still expanding the issues surrounding their position. Arranging a time for negotiations, he said, would have to be vetted with both the school’s representative and attorney, Tom Volz, and TASH’s representative, D’Esposito. He seemed certain that the two parties would negotiate in the near future.
Teacher Doug Alnwick remarked that he didn’t find the board to be unreasonable, but said he felt “disrespected” by the negotiation process.
“I applaud [the board] for wanting to investigate the process … but to do it now is like trying different recipes when your guests are already seated,” added teacher Michelle Grant, who added she was forced to take on a second job cleaning pools to pay off her student loans in excess of $120,000. Other’s comments took on a more personal note.
“You are beating me down,” stated guidance counselor Linda Aydinian.
According to teachers from other Suffolk County school districts, strained and long negotiations might become more commonplace as the economy remains depressed. Wayne Kubacki, a teacher with BOCES who stood on the grassy knoll of the Long Wharf, said this is the fifth rally he has attended in the last two years.
“They are becoming more of the norm because of the economic situation,” theorized Kubacki. Tom Franz, a teacher in the Eastport School District, reported that his last two contracts each took more than two years to negotiate.
D’Esposito shrugged off this claim and said he successfully negotiated contracts with larger school districts at the height of the economic melt down.
“In some places they recognize the tough times, but they also recognize fair trading,” added D’Esposito.
Kochanasz was “heart warmed” by the display of support on Monday but remained weary of the potential to negotiate with the school in the near future.
“I want to be more hopeful,” said Kochanasz. “[But] I am still reserving my excitement.”