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Board and TASH Set Negotiation Date

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By Marissa Maier

Despite wrapping up the meeting in just an hour, the Sag Harbor School Board and the community discussed a wide variety of issues at the board of education meeting on Monday, February 8. The topics of the evening included an update on the teacher contract negotiations, the prevalence of alcohol use among underage athletes, an update on the school’s investigation of the International Baccalaureate program, and parent groups partnering up to get out the vote this spring.

After the school board offered to meet on February 7 and the Teacher’s Association of Sag Harbor (TASH) proposed 16 alternate dates, both parties have now agreed to meet on Saturday, February 27, confirmed school superintendent Dr. John Gratto. The full school board will be present at this bargaining session, except board president Walter Wilcoxen who will be away.

At Monday’s meeting, leading TASH member Jim Kinnier said he was “happy to hear” that the board was available to meet in the near future.

“I urge all parties involved to focus on everyone’s shared interest. We want a vibrant community. I think focusing on the goal of having a strong school and being flexible is really important,” noted parent and wife of a Sag Harbor educator Helen Atkinson-Barnes. “I would like to see this settled. I want to move on and I think everyone else does too.”

Parent Chris Tice asked both parties to publicly commit to “stay all night” on February 27 until a deal is struck. Tice asked the board and TASH to discuss this suggestion and return with an answer by the next board meeting on February 22. Wilcoxen suggested she pose this question again at the upcoming board meeting.

Alcohol and Athletes

Montgomery Granger, school director of physical education, health and athletics, recently attended a New York State Public High School Athletic Association conference in which the American Athletics Institute presented the findings of a study regarding student athlete’s use of alcohol. Overall, the study revealed that nearly 60 percent of student athletes consume alcohol, with Nassau and Suffolk County showing the highest levels of underage drinking, noted Granger. He added that the school community is still in the process of digesting this information, which has been distributed to the administration and the nutrition and wellness committee. Granger said the school could feasibly conduct an in-house anonymous survey to learn the levels of underage drinking among athletes in the district. At the BOE meeting on Monday, Granger noted the county passed a law in 2007 prohibiting the serving alcohol to people ages 21 and under. The school currently requires athletes to sign a contract which includes a provision which discourages drinking alcohol.

“The goal isn’t to stigmatize. It is to identify the problem and help them,” remarked Granger.

Update on International Baccalaureate

Foreign language teacher Toby Marienfeld noted she and five other teachers recently visited the Northport School District to observe the International Baccalaureate program in action. She said the visiting team spoke with administrators, instructors, guidance counselors and students. On the way home, the Sag Harbor group talked amongst themselves. Marienfeld reported the group’s feelings on the IB program were mixed. She, however, was disheartened that they only met with Pierson Principal Jeff Nichols to discuss their visit and not with the school board and superintendent.

In his budget presentation, Nichols outlaid $15,000 for basic IB training and $10,000 in application fees. Marienfeld argued that if the board is moving forward with the IB program she would hope the input of the educators would be included.

Wilcoxen explained the school is in the midst of investigating the IB program and enrolling educators in level one workshops is the final stage of this process. After the training is complete, Wilcoxen said the board would gather all parties, including the teachers who visited the Northport school, to vet out the pros and cons of implementing this type of curriculum in Pierson. Board member Dan Hartnett added the board hoped to investigate the IB program over a couple of years, which also spreads out the expense. Hartnett works for the East Hampton School District, which has been exploring IB for the past few years, he noted.

Get Out the Vote

Parent Laura Avedon announced that her parents group hopes to work with the PTA, PTSA and SEPTA to encourage voter registration for the school board election and budget vote this spring. Wilcoxen noted these groups aren’t allowed to support a specific candidate but could help in any efforts to “get out the vote.” Avedon pointed out her group compiled data from the last two school votes and discovered roughly 25 percent of the votes were cast by parents in the community.

Teacher Negotiation Update

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By Marissa Maier
 
 According to Sag Harbor School superintendent Dr. John Gratto, the school board attempted to set-up a negotiation session on Sunday, February 7 with the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor (TASH). School board president Walter Wilcoxen and Dr. Gratto met with TASH leaders Jim Kinnier and Eileen Kochanasz, last Wednesday to propose a day of negotiations this weekend, said Dr. Gratto. He added that the full school board planned to attend the bargaining session. In the past only Dr. Gratto and the school’s attorney Tom Volz have been present during these meetings to negotiate a new contract for the teachers, though the board has been present at informational sessions with TASH.
Kochanasz confirmed on Wednesday that TASH declined the offer to meet on February 7, but has offered 16 alternative dates between February 23 and March 24.
“We weren’t able to match everybody’s calendar and we were given short notice on this,” explained Kochanasz. Of the full board attending a negotiation session, Kochanasz added, “That is a different approach then we have experienced in the past two years.”
Wilcoxen noted that NYSUT, TASH’s union representation, has asked in the past for the full board to be present at negotiation sessions.
“TASH has often mentioned that they think the whole board should be involved. The board wanted to commit a lot of hours on a Sunday so there would be no time constraints. They have a sense of urgency about finalizing this contract,” remarked Dr.Gratto in an interview on Tuesday.
Although Dr. Gratto declined to discuss the details of the board’s current offer, he explained the board has “flexibility within parameters.” To use an analogy, the board’s offer is like a puzzle, and though their end goal is to complete this puzzle, they are able to adjust how the pieces of their offer fit together. For example, Dr.Gratto explained that if TASH made cost-saving concessions in one area the board would have the ability to beef up their offer in another area.  
“The major issues are salaries and health insurance. We have options that we think could satisfy the needs of both parties. There has to be a reason for both parties to say yes,” said Dr. Gratto. Kochanasz later said that since the board proposed meeting on February 7 neither party has discussed any contract ideas.

Time for a Compromise

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We were struck this week by the sharp differences in two long ongoing contract negotiations.

The three local hospitals which have joined together under the banner of the East End Health Alliance have been in and out of talks with the area’s largest insurer, Empire BlueCross BlueShield, since last summer. The benefits and the ability to receive reimbursement for hospital stays for thousands of local residents hang in the balance.

Then there is the struggle between the Sag Harbor School District and the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor. This has been going on for two years and the peace of a community rubbed raw is at stake — not to mention salary and benefits packages for teachers and future bills for tax payers.

While the debate between hospitals and insurer goes on behind closed doors, the discussion between the teachers and the district has been, in many ways, very public. We haven’t been privy to what actually is discussed, but speculation and posturing from both sides occurs regularly in school board meetings and on the letters to the editor pages.

There is another difference here, and that is there appears to be an end in sight for the former. An Empire spokesperson this week ebulliantly suggested their might be an agreement within the next few weeks.

While we are encouraged by the announcement this week that the teachers and the school board are hoping to meet in the next few weeks, there is little evidence that either side is prepared to budge from their dug in positions (although we do note the board sending all of its members to a sit down — something the teachers have been requesting all along).

But what has struck us is a comment made by Paul Connor, president of Eastern Long Island Hospital and spokesperson for the Alliance. For the first time in more than five months both sides in the negotiations seem to making real progress.  When asked what the turning point was, after months of a stalemate, Connor said simply both sides began to find plaves where they could compromise.

In Sag Harbor, someone is going to have to take the first step. Both sides have claimed they are willing to compromise in certain areas and are not wedded to any position. But, acknowledging we simply don’t know what is said behind closed doors, it does not appear there is any real effort to compromise from either side. We suspect, if there was, we would have moved forward by now. 

Point of View: What is the Teacher Contract Dispute Really About?

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By Susan Lamontagne

First there was a mediator, then a Fact Finder, and then a lawsuit. It seems as though nothing has been able to resolve the contract dispute between Sag Harbor’s teachers’ union and board of education. So what’s going on? As the parent of a first grader who has been thrilled with our teachers and who has a lot at stake in the future of our schools, I decided to find out.

I brought together a small group of parents – independent from either side of the dispute – to learn more and find a resolution. We reviewed all the public documentation from both sides. We met with both sides. We asked questions and offered ideas: What if a group of parents recommend a compromise agreement? What if we mediate the dispute? What if we monitor the negotiations? Each time, the answer was no.

So, why can’t the two sides come to an agreement? Here is what we learned from this process and a Freedom of Information request that I filed with the school:

1) Salary Increase: TASH is asking for a 3.9 percent increase each year over four years; the board is offering 2.5 percent. Why can’t the two sides meet in the middle? These increases are in addition to a “step” increase that is already a part of the teachers’ salary schedule that provides annual raises based upon years of experience and amount of education. For example, a first-year teacher with a master’s degree earns $55,071; a teacher with 10 year’s experience, an MA and 30 continuing education credits earns $76,600. Each year they receive step increases ranging from 2% to 3.39%. Add the step increase to the additional raise that each side is asking/offering and you get a board offer averaging just over 5% each year (or a 20.72% increase over a four-year contract) compared to nearly a 6.6% annual increase requested by the teacher’s union (or a 25.6% increase over four years).

In Sag Harbor, however, first-year teachers are few and far between. Most of our 124 teachers have more than 10 years of experience and over a quarter have more than 20 years of experience, so the average teacher salary in Sag Harbor is $86,051.26/year; 32 teachers make more than $100,000/year and eight make more than $120,000/year. It’s a good thing, of course, when teachers have years of experience. From a budget perspective, it adds up. In 2009, our teacher payroll was $10,584,304.80.

The teacher’s union says that teachers should make a salary that rewards their professionalism, education and experience – and they’re right about that. In Sag Harbor, teacher base salaries range from $45,937 for a first-year teacher to $122,468 for a teacher with an MA and 75 continuing education credits or a PhD. Teachers can earn additional pay for coaching sports ($3,000 – $5,500 depending on the sport), providing programs such as the terrific Partners in Print, or overseeing clubs. Teachers also have summers off, when many of them work second jobs, and four weeks of vacation during the school year. But the stalemate is not over whether teachers deserve a good salary – they do. It’s when a district’s budget becomes top heavy with a disproportionate number of senior teachers and the growing cost of health and retirement benefits that the question becomes, how do we sustain these costs in the long-term and also afford art supplies, Spanish, sports, music, building maintenance and a much-needed pre-K program?

2) Comparable Salaries: TASH has expressed frustration that teachers in Sag Harbor make less than teachers in East Hampton. (Set aside for a moment that each district negotiates their contracts at different times so that at any one time your district will be slightly ahead or behind.) I compared the most recent salary schedules for the two districts and Sag Harbor teachers make about $2,000 to $10,000 less a year – depending on seniority – than those in East Hampton. There are other differences. East Hampton teachers have a 14-minute longer work day, larger class sizes, and more ESL (English as a Second Language) students. The biggest difference, however, is our tax base. Sag Harbor’s budget is not underwritten by ocean-front mansions and large retail businesses. Despite these salary differences, Sag Harbor has been able to attract and retain great teachers and the board obviously considers this when negotiating its pay scale.

3) Health Benefits: Health care costs have reached such crisis proportions in the U.S. that it has dominated much of the national political debate. The automobile industry blames health care costs for much of its troubles. The very wealthy and union members are the only two segments of our population left that enjoy excellent health care benefits, which some call “Cadillac plans.” Everyone should have such coverage! Unfortunately, the costs can be crippling.

To help control these costs, the board has asked that all teachers pay 15% toward their health care premium in retirement (currently, only teachers hired after 2000 are subject to this). This amounts to about $91/month for an individual and about $200/month for family coverage (based on the 2010 plan cost of $7,348/year for an individual and $15,972/year for a family). TASH rejected this proposal and the Fact Finder recommended instead that teachers hired after 2009 pay a higher contribution – 25% – to make up the difference. This perplexed me. What about finding a compromise where younger teachers don’t have to shoulder the entire burden? What about offering two health care plans – a lower cost one where teachers would pay nothing and the current “Cadillac plan,” which includes vision, dental and very low co-pays, where retired teachers would contribute a small amount to the monthly premium? Currently, Sag Harbor pays the full health insurance costs of 44 retirees; given the seniority of many of our teachers, this number will increase substantially over the next ten years.

4) Sick Day Buy Back: Upon retirement, East Hampton teachers are able to get up to one year of additional pay if they have the requisite number of unused sick days. Sag Harbor teachers want a similar benefit. East Hampton teachers won this perk in exchange for a 50% contribution to their health benefits in retirement and 65% for their spouse. So, what happens when you have several retiring teachers at the top of the pay scale who earn the buy back in the same year? This becomes an extremely costly proposal to implement. Perhaps the question we need to ask is: ‘What is the purpose of sick days?’

5) Work Rules: There are also differences between the two sides regarding the terms in which teachers work. For example, teachers are paid a stipend in addition to their salaries to monitor lunch times and the board wants to change that. Teachers are requesting a stipend for staffing overnight field trips and they want to select their continuing education classes. These issues seem easy enough, but each has budget ramifications. I always thought that supervising school lunches and field trips were part of a teacher’s job. Teachers should be able to pick their own continuing education classes, but each class they take enables them to move up the salary schedule and the class they pick might not serve the school’s needs. Would a compromise be for teachers to select whatever classes they want, but for the superintendent to have the final say as to whether the class qualifies for a pay increase?

There are countless more issues involved. On each issue, one side says the other won’t budge and the other side says that’s not true and no one other than the two sides can know for sure since members of the public are not permitted to witness the negotiations. Again, I asked and the answer was no.

This is what we do know. We are facing the most serious fiscal crisis since the Great Depression. National unemployment is over 10% and economists agree that number is grossly understated. Last year, President Obama froze the federal employee cost-of-living adjustment, which is somewhat equivalent to the step increase that teachers automatically receive each year (and since the terms of the expired contract remain in place until a new one is agreed up, teachers continue to receive their step increase, except for the teachers at the very top of the salary schedule). Because of budget crises, teachers in California, Iowa, North Carolina and Washington, DC are being let go. Mass teacher layoffs are pending in Florida, Michigan, and New York City, among others.

I want Sag Harbor to maintain the high levels of staffing we all currently enjoy. In the elementary school, for example, classes tend to be smaller, with a teacher and teaching assistant in each classroom. We also have more guidance counselors per student than similar districts. In recent years, we have begun to hear about more and more students being accepted to outstanding colleges. Sag Harbor schools are special, with extraordinary parent and community involvement, and I believe most of us would like to keep it that way. Yet, during Sag Harbor’s last board of education election, candidates faced a firestorm from members of our community who wanted to reduce their tax burden by decimating the schools, which account for about 70% of our property taxes. Fortunately, those of us who believe that we must invest in our children, teachers and schools won the last round. Will we again? How does the board “sell” significant cost increases at a time when many residents have lost their jobs or their incomes have been reduced?

As this dispute continues, the friendly camaraderie that once prevailed in Sag Harbor schools has dissipated. When teachers wear gray t-shirts heralding “Year 2 No Contract” at Halloween events and holiday shows, it feels like someone is raining on our children’s parade. When board members do not respond to legitimate questions or complaints during meetings, it leaves people feeling angry and frustrated. When parents cannot find the time to vote to support our schools, what message does that send to our children, our teachers, and our community?

So, how will we end this dispute? The board and the teachers union need to set aside personal grudges and start to respect each other’s perspective. They need to explain to us what the roadblocks are and be open to new ways of resolving problems. Parents and community members need to learn the facts and get involved. We can deliver a top-notch education at a price our community can afford and sustain. To achieve that, we must all work together. Anything less is to fail our children.


Susan Lamontagne is the mother of a SHES student, a future SHES student, and president of the Public Interest Media Group, Inc.

Changing of the Garb

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web Teachers Shirts

“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.

TASH Files Charges Against District

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The Teacher’s Association of Sag Harbor (TASH) President Eileen Kochanasz revealed on Friday, December 18, that TASH would file formal charges against the Sag Harbor School District for bargaining in bad faith. NYSUT, the teacher’s union representatives, helped draft the charges over the weekend and by Wednesday, December 23, the charges were formally submitted to the New York State Public Employees Relations Board (PERB).

Above: TASH president Eileen Kochanasz speaking to fellow members of NYSUT at a rally in late October.

Unlike civil matters which are argued in court, TASH’s charges against the district will be reviewed, presided over and a final verdict will be rendered by PERB.

“This is the first time [TASH is filing charges against the district],” said Kochanasz on Friday. “We haven’t done this before because it is hard to come up with substantive evidence but we have it now.”

TASH filed two separate charges. The first alleges the district demanded that TASH agree to the district’s proposals in two key areas before returning to the bargaining table in September. Kochanasz stated in a press release distributed Wednesday that “the concessions the District sought hadn’t even been recommended by the Fact Finder in his report less than a month earlier.”

The second charge includes a number of alleged actions taken by the board which TASH believes meets the criteria of bargaining in bad faith.

In the release, Kochanasz claims the board hasn’t authorized its representatives to bargain at scheduled negotiation sessions, while it has established pre-conditions to bargaining and presented proposals which were less favorable to TASH than previous ones.

“[The board's] lack of urgency since February of 2008 in these negotiations has been self-evident, and their assurances to the public that they would ‘negotiate through the night and fully authorize their negotiators to bargain’ ring false and hollow in the face of their actions,” asserted Kochanasz in the release.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management defines good faith bargaining as “the duty to approach negotiations with a sincere resolve to reach a collective bargaining agreement, to be represented by properly authorized representatives who are prepared to discuss and negotiate on any condition of employment, to meet at reasonable times and places as frequently as may be necessary and to avoid unnecessary delays, and, in the case of agency, to furnish upon request data necessary to negotiation.”

Conversely, the Director of Public Employment Practices with PERB, Monty Klein, characterized “bad faith bargaining” as the absence of a sincere desire of one party to reach an agreement with another party.

“We [the district] certainly believe that we have bargained in good faith and will continue to bargain in good faith,” responded school superintendent Dr. John Gratto in an interview last week. “They [TASH] are alleging that we have bargained in bad faith. Basically their contention is that we need to offer more money.”

“It is an unproductive waste of time and money to pursue this. Really, the issue is that we disagree,” claimed Dr. Gratto.

Dr. Gratto first heard of TASH’s plans through the rumor mill late last week. He met with Kochanasz on Friday and said he urged TASH to abandon the charges.

“Even if PERB sides with the teachers, they would probably direct us back to the bargaining table. PERB can’t make any decisions about what the district should offer,” noted Dr. Gratto.

Klein confirmed that bargaining in good faith doesn’t require an agreement to a particular proposal but speaks to adhering to a process of bargaining. A ruling in this type of case, added Klein, seeks to bring the parties to a position they would have been in had there not been a breech in good faith bargaining.

“This is another tactic to try and force the board to move from their positions that they think are fair towards positions TASH thinks are more favorable,” stated Dr. Gratto. “The board has clearly thought through their proposals and the long term impact of them. Despite the pressure tactics of tee-shirts, personal attacks picketing and filing charges, the board’s position is clearly thought through.”

Klein explained that he will review the charges and then assign the case to an administrative law judge with PERB. This judge schedules an off-the-record pre-hearing conference with both parties to ascertain the issues at hand and see if it can be resolved. If the parties fail to reach a voluntary settlement at this point, the case istransferred to a different judge who issues a formal decision. The pre-hearing conference is scheduled around six-weeks after the charges are first received by PERB. Klein noted that the average case is resolved in about a year, but added that this time frame depends on the particularly case.

Guidance Position Safe Once Again

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Once again, parents with children in the Sag Harbor School District came out in droves to support middle school guidance counselor Carl Brandl at a board of education meeting on Monday evening, December 7. In recent weeks, rumors have circulated in the community that Brandl’s position could be potentially cut and that a guidance counselor position had opened up on Shelter Island. At the meeting, the board reassured the public that Brandl’s position was safe for this school year. During a meeting in the days after the board meeting, Dr. Gratto said he was “95 percent” certain the job would also be kept for the 2010-2011 school year as well. When asked if the district would replace Brandl if he decided to step down this year, Dr. Gratto answered, “I expect so.”

“Part of my job and the board’s job is to help understand the concerns of the community,” school board president Walter Wilcoxen told the audience gathered at the school board meeting.

In early November, the district anticipated a revenue shortfall of around $148,000 in the coming new year due to decreases in state aid and cutting Brandl’s position was one idea vetted amongst administrators to handle the loss. Dozens of parents attended a board meeting in November to express their support of Brandl and told the board his position was invaluable for young teenagers who are facing the challenges of early adolescence. At this previous board meeting, the board maintained Brandl’s position was secure and Dr. Gratto outlined a four-part plan to maintain staff for the 2009-2010 school year. On Monday, board member Ed Haye reiterated that every position is safe for 2009 through June of 2010.

“I think we need to let Carl know that we want him to stay. We might not be able to find someone who is good at this position again,” noted parent Vanessa Leggard.

In the coming budget process, noted board members at Monday’s meeting, the district faces increased costs for 2010-2011. Wilcoxen later stated the district’s contribution into the teacher and employee retirement system is expected to increase, along with health insurance increases of between four to five percent and flat lining of state aid revenues. Dr. Gratto, however, believed these increases might be slightly offset due to transportation savings, mainly from the purchase of a bus and van. He anticipates the district will save in the ballpark of $300,000 to $400,000 from reduced transportation costs for this fiscal year alone.

Starting in January, the school board will host a series of workshops on the 2010-2011 budget, where the board says they hope to craft the budget with public input.

“There are probably going to be some tough decisions, but if we do this together we can achieve our goal,” said Wilcoxen of maintaining educational programming and staff into the new fiscal year. “If people come to the budget meetings … they will see the whole package of what our expenses are and we will be able to have a conversation about what the tax rate might be. Are we going to support a higher tax rate? Are we going to have to cut back? That will be the discussion that we will have in public.”

Negotiations Continue

Dr. Gratto added that contract negotiations between the Teacher’s Association of Sag Harbor (TASH) and the district resumed on Tuesday and Thursday of last week. Last Tuesday morning, on December 1, several board members met with members of TASH for an informational session on the negotiations. The meeting was followed by a formal bargaining session in the afternoon, which continued again on Thursday.

Wilcoxen said one suggestion to come out of the information session was to meet periodically with TASH for a formal dialogue on the negotiations. TASH president Eileen Kochanasz said she respected the decision to set-up these meetings. However, Dr. Gratto stated that although “much progress was made in understanding each other’s position, less progress was made in agreeing to contractual provisions.”

Negotiations Resume, But Slowly

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This week the Sag Harbor School District and the teacher’s association returned to contract negotiations after several months of deadlock. The parties met at the bargaining table on Tuesday morning at 9:30 and didn’t leave the building until around 5 p.m. School superintendent Dr. John Gratto and Teacher Association of Sag Harbor President Eileen Kochanasz sadly reported the two parties still haven’t reached a final agreement regarding teachers’ raises, health insurance contributions and supervisory duties, among several other key issues.
When the school board announced they would sit down with TASH once again, it appeared that progress and a resolution was on the horizon. Teacher Nancy Remkus was hopeful. At a board of education meeting on Monday, Remkus said she wished to come to a place where she could shed the grey shirt. Educator Cathy Meyerhoff remained cautious and asked the board to use the negotiations as a “turning point.” But it seems the event on Tuesday left both the board and TASH a bit disappointed.
At 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Dr. Gratto and school attorney Tom Volz presented TASH with a packaged proposal of the board’s position. Dr. Gratto reported that the board adjusted their bargaining position in several areas, including salaries, health insurance and duty periods. Although Dr. Gratto didn’t elaborate on the specifics of the proposal, he added that the board offered a five-year contract.
“We thought [the proposal] would reasonably satisfy our mutual interests,” noted Dr. Gratto in an interview on Wednesday.
After presenting the new proposal, Dr. Gratto said negotiators with TASH took close to three hours reviewing the offer and returned with a counter proposal. Dr. Gratto claimed TASH’s proposal mirrored the fact finder’s report. He maintained the board still needs to conduct cost estimates on TASH’s recommendations. Although Dr. Gratto wasn’t sure when the board would meet to vet this package, he said the parties are expected back at the bargaining table on December 1.
Kochanasz agreed that there was some movement on part of the board, but felt the style of negotiations had remained the same.
“I wish they had the power to negotiate within the session, instead of having to leave to evaluate proposals. It isn’t give and take negotiations and that troubles me,” stated Kochanasz. “We gave them a counter proposal and they stopped right there.”
In a press statement released on Wednesday, TASH said the picketing will continue and the teachers will still wear their grey shirts. Kochanasz also expressed “disappointment that the district also included some new and ‘onerous’ proposals in their package.”
In the past few weeks, the negotiations have been the topic of conversation in several public forums. Members of the community from all walks of life seem to be weighing in on the previous proposals.
“I think the teachers are living in a bubble. There are people in the community who have lost their jobs or their benefits … I fought for every budget and I’m for this school. [But] you can only go to the taxpayer and ask so much. You need a budget that can get approved by the taxpayer,” noted parent Steve Clarke at the board of education meeting on Monday evening.
Teacher Joann Kelly argued that the negotiations weren’t stuck at a particular amount of money. She added that her own husband faces losing his job.
Of the negotiations, teacher Cathy Meyerhoff asked the board, “Where do you want to be tomorrow, the holiday season or in January?”
“Cathy, that was well said,” noted Dr. Gratto. “And I believe it is equally pertinent to TASH.”

Teachers Union Protests Stalled Negotiations in Sag Harbor

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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.) 

TASH March 10-19-09 Chant HQ

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.”

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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.”

Sag Harbor School Board Defends its Negotiating Position; Ready to Meet

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The Sag Harbor School Board of Education released a letter to Sag Harbor residents on Thursday, October 15, saying the board plans to “schedule negotiation sessions in the near future.” School board president Walter Wilcoxen reiterated the board’s intent to return to the negotiating table at a Board of Education meeting on Monday evening. On Wednesday, Wilcoxen reported that the school’s attorney Tom Volz had proposed three separate dates to meet and start negotiations with the Teacher Association of Sag Harbor (TASH). Wilcoxen said the board would meet with TASH within two weeks at the earliest or by early November at the latest. But TASH president Eileen Kochanasz later confirmed that the organization could meet with the board on either October 30 or November 3.

Although the meeting was well attended by members of the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor, Wilcoxen contended he wouldn’t answer questions as the board hopes to refrain from negotiating in public.

Wilcoxen did note that “the board has spent more than several meetings going over our negotiating concepts and positions.” He added that superintendent Dr. John Gratto planned to speak with the board’s attorney Tom Volz and would instruct him to reach out to the TASH representative to plan a future meeting. 

“Communication between the parties must continue in order to identify options that could address each side’s concerns,” stated the board in the letter. “We look forward to working with the teachers to resolve all outstanding differences and settle the contract in a mutually beneficial manner.”

In the letter, the board recapitulated the history of the negotiations — since they first began in February of 2008 — and referenced the fact finder’s report from August 2009. However, the board also highlighted data revealing the fiscal condition of the community. According to the board’s letter, the Sag Harbor School District has the lowest combined wealth ratio compared to the Bridgehampton, East Hampton and Southampton school districts.

“Combined Wealth Ratio is defined by the State Education Department as ‘based on a combined wealth, which weights income and property equally … each wealth ratio was computed by dividing the district’s wealth by the state average wealth as defined by law …’ The purpose is to measure the relative wealth between districts based on a State standard. A district of average wealth would have a Combined Wealth Ratio of 1.0,” explained the board. According to the data presented by the board, Sag Harbor has a CWR of around 4.85, Southampton has a CWR of 8.47, East Hampton has a CWR of 7.45 and Bridgehampton has a CWR of 20.87. (These figures are based on data from 2007.) At the board meeting, TASH member Jim Kinnier contended these figures were taken out of context, saying the Sag Harbor School district remains the 14th richest school district in the state.

The board also presented the property tax levy as a percentage of the general fund expenditure, which in other words “measures the degree to which a district depends on the residents to pay property taxes and to support the cost of education.” The board showed figures from 2008 where 87.8% of the district’s expenses are derived from property taxes and not other sources like state or federal aid. This figure is compared to 79.7% in Southampton, 73.8% in East Hampton and 65% in Bridgehampton. The board added that the reliance on residential households is further exacerbated by less commercial development in Sag Harbor compared to East Hampton and Southampton.

During a later interview, Wilcoxen said the board released these figures because TASH has argued that if Southampton and East Hampton school districts were able to give their teachers raises over 3.5 percent then Sag Harbor should be able to make the same commitment. 

“[The board's] view is that we are not the same. One of the main things we wanted to say to the community is that we have less wealth to tax,” explained Wilcoxen.

The board also mentioned that they expect post-retirement health benefit costs will increase from $352,000, which the district spent last year, to $740,000 by 2014.

In some of the closing remarks of the letter, the board said: “The Board desires to reach an agreement that, in its entirety: (1) will result in the community supporting the district and teachers (2) will be fair to teachers, (3) will further the academic achievement of students, (4) will recognize the current economic realities and (5) will be supported by the best available data.”

Asked why the board published the letter now, board member Mary Anne Miller said she thought the figures were “an important piece of information for the community as a whole.” She added that the board is continuing to work on the data. Of the acrimonious personal note the discussions between TASH and the board have taken recently, Miller added “I am not judging [the teacher's] character. I am committed to education too … [But] without the finances we can’t do anything.”

A copy of the letter can be found on the home page of the district’s website at http://www.sagharborschools.org/