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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/


TASH to March on Main Street

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Next Monday, the Teacher Association of Sag Harbor (TASH) will march together with members of the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) union from neighboring districts on the streets of Main Street in protest of the recent teacher contract negotiations in Sag Harbor. The village board of trustees approved the permit for the TASH rally on Tuesday evening, October 13, but had a few requests for TASH President Eileen Kochanasz.

Above: Teachers picketing in front of the Sag Harbor Elementary School in January of 2009.

Sag Harbor Village Trustee Tiffany Scarlato brought up concerns, saying she felt Main Street business owners would likely be upset with the demonstration and complain to the trustees. Kochanasz assured Scarlato that teachers would personally visit the store owners ahead of time to talk with them about the rally.

“Hopefully, that takes some of the heat off of you,” said Kochanasz to the board.

Kochanasz explained the event would entail people parking in available spaces in the village. The group will then meet at the Long Wharf, walk up one side of Main Street with signs of protest in hand, march back down the other side of the street and then make their way to Pierson High School via Madison Street. Once at the high school, noted Kochanasz, participants would disperse from the area on their own and not as a group.

“If there is enough people we might walk in two groups down [Main] street simultaneously,” reported Kochanasz during a later interview.

On the permit application, Kochanasz informed the village that the rally could attract up to 300 people. TASH has invited fellow NYSUT members from all the Suffolk County schools to join in the rally. Although Kochanasz doesn’t have final tallies of how many people will show up on Monday, representatives from Southampton, Bridgehampton, East Hampton, Tuckahoe, Westhampton, Riverhead, Eastport, Springs, Shelter Island and Montauk plan to attend the event. Jim Kinnier, a prominent member of TASH, also reached out to educators at schools located on the North Fork.

The group will walk on the sidewalk and not the roadway, but Kochanasz and Kinnier plan to meet with Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Tom Fabiano to discuss the logistics of the march. A few teachers have volunteered to stand at crosswalks and help organize vehicular and pedestrian traffic.

At the trustees meeting, the board members only briefly discussed the negotiations between the teachers and school board, which have been under way for more than 20 months. Mayor Brian Gilbride noted he has already offered school superintendent Dr. John Gratto the use of the Municipal Building for any further negotiations with TASH, with Scarlato offering herself up as a mediator.

“We actually have tried that with two outside mediators,” noted Kochanasz, referencing the mediator and fact finder the district has already employed.

The board unanimously approved the permit, although Scarlato said she hopes it does not become a monthly request.

The TASH rally will begin at the Long Wharf in Sag Harbor on Monday, October 19, at 5 p.m.

Worries Over Parking and TASH are raised

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There is never a dull moment in the Sag Harbor School District — and on Monday evening, the phrase was infused with new meaning at the board of education meeting. Dozens of teachers attended wearing their grey shirts, reiterating their dissatisfaction with contract negotiations and a stalemate in the bargaining process, and more than 20 parents and residents turned up to weigh-in on an upcoming parking project and the future of the middle and high school playing fields.
The board intends to spend around $1 million to create 51 additional parking spaces at the elementary school, renovate the Jermain Avenue lot near the Pierson gym and create additional car spots at the high school. During the meeting, the board announced an amendment to the plan. The parking project will no longer include seven spots that buttress Jermain Avenue. Now, there will be grass separating the street from the parking lot.
School board president Walter Wilcoxen further noted that the school isn’t required to increase the parking by any legislation, but would like to create new spaces to satisfy the needs of its staff and to accommodate a few visitors. Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Tom Fabiano was on hand to support the parking project and said the congestion of parking has created safety issues.
But Carol Williams, who lives on Jermain Avenue across from the school was uncomfortable with spending money on parking and didn’t mind Pierson staff parking on the residential streets.
Other residents believe that by providing more parking, the school is encouraging car use over other modes of transportation. In conjunction with the parking project, some feel there should be a commensurate effort to promote biking and walking to school.
“The more people walk and bike, the safer walking and biking will be,” said 725 Green chairwoman Gigi Morris. Sara Gordon with the Peconic Land Trust asked for a plan to reduce car trips for families and staff.
Some parents also brought up the need for adequate sidewalks to the school, which would be the responsibility of the village. Village trustee Tim Culver said the village board was exploring installing sidewalks but such projects remain expensive.
The parking project would be part of a larger facilities bond which will be put up for a vote in December. Considering current interest rates and the decrease in construction prices, Wilcoxen said the school will most likely spend less on the project now than it would in the future.
In addition to discussions over parking, the board is mulling over purchasing a synthetic turf field for the middle and high school. The initial capital investment for synthetic turf is around $990,000 said director of buildings and grounds Montgomery Granger, but requires little maintenance. Over a 10 year period, the costs associated with an organic field or a synthetic one are comparable, he added.
“I hope we do one or the other,” remarked school board member Ed Haye. “I hope we don’t leave it the way it is.”
The current fields, noted Granger, are extremely compacted which can lead to injuries.
As the board meeting was winding down, Teacher Association President Eileen Kochanasz spoke to the stalemate in contract negotiations with the board.
“We have been watching some very organized, well-thought out plans presented and input from the public has been accepted. We just hope for the same treatment for the teachers,” said Kochanasz. “I have one thing left to say. The teachers are ready willing and able to negotiate.”
On Monday, Kochanasz said TASH officially asked for a “crisis” status with the New York State United Teachers union on the state of the negotiations, citing the board’s rejection of the fact finder’s report as a key reason for the move.
As the negotiations continue, several parents at the meeting said they feel the strife is deteriorating morale in the district.
“I feel a sense of loss in the schools and the community I moved into,” noted parent Janice Arbia. “I look at the teachers all dressed in the same shirts and I think there is a frustration in the board’s unwillingness to speak. Dr. Gratto you just got a raise … Then you [the board] are telling the teachers to tighten their belts.”
Wilcoxen said he will meet with Dr. Gratto and two other board members this week to “revisit the concept behind some of [the board's] positions and use it as a way to explore coming back to the table.”
“We spent two hours before [the meeting] started discussing ways to restart the negotiation process,” noted Haye. “Hopefully it will result in more fruitful negotiations.”
To which, Kochanasz replied, “Well that is good news for us and the district.”

Getting to “Yes”

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Grey is the color of death.

That’s what a color expert told me when I described the grey t-shirts our teachers wore while picketing out in front of Pierson High School. Grey, I learned, is the color we turn just before death, often representing mediocrity, pessimism and tragedy.

Well, then, I asked, knowing the teachers want to be heard and successfully negotiate an acceptable contract, what color t-shirt would best signal their positive intention? What color t-shirt will signify that TASH wants to get to “yes?”

Not grey, not black. Black doesn’t emit or reflect light, so symbolically, black represents darkness, bad luck and secrecy. That won’t work. Yet, royal blue, I discovered, represents harmony. Yellow represents hope, optimism, the color of the sun. Bright red represents positive power and strength. Pink represents compassion, coming from the heart. Light green represents renewal and new life; and a darker green represents prosperity, the color of money.

Over 75% of all communication is non-verbal, and regardless of the big signs the teachers carry, nor the carefully chosen words printed on their t-shirts, the unspoken, non verbal message sent by collectively wearing grey is, “we’ve lost, we’re dead.”

I’m also reminded of the book, “Getting to YES, Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In,” an extraordinary work written by two members of the Harvard Negotiation Project, brilliantly outlining the importance of “principled negotiations,” which focuses on acceptable compromises between parties, understanding the difference between fixed and flexible needs in the negotiations. Printed in 1981, Getting to Yes, is one of the longest best selling business books in history, and I’m wondering if TASH and Sag Harbor School District Board members have read the book. Right about now it should be required reading for anyone involved in these teacher negotiations.

Over the last year and a half, I’ve talked intimately with parties on both sides of these contract negotiations, and privately I keep hearing the same question: “How do we get to ‘yes?’”

I’ve learned from my work as a crisis manager and communications professional that dissenting parties often back themselves into a corner, and at some point need outside, independent help to find peace. Not a professional negotiator hired to beat up the other side, a mutually agreed upon diplomat to carefully craft a peaceful and mutually agreeable solution.

A highlight of my professional career was in 1997 when acting as a special envoy to an Irish delegation during the Northern Ireland peace process, I carried a sensitive message to President Clinton at the White House. My missive was an expression of gratitude to the President for his appointing Senator George Mitchell as the official United States Special Envoy for Northern Ireland, and that President Clinton’s work toward lasting Northern Irish peace was deeply appreciated. Publicly, it appeared there was no solution to these years of conflict. Yet privately, both sides wanted the “Troubles,” the almost thirty year dissent between North Ireland’s Roman Catholic Nationalists and the Protestant Unionists, to end. It took a group of outsiders with no agenda but peace to bring this long, deadly dispute to an eventual “yes.”

We need a special envoy, a delegation of Sag Harbor residents – parents, leaders, government officials and, dare I say, even possibly some students — to help the school board and TASH get to “yes.”

As Albert Einstein once said, “You can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it.” Here in Sag Harbor, we’re 18 months and counting into this teacher’s contract mess.

I’ve heard both sides of the contract argument, and both parties see themselves as right. Right doesn’t solve the problem, it only creates a position to defend. Being right also means the other side has to be wrong, which creates blame, finger pointing and personal attacks. Focusing on Dr. Gratto’s raise, or why TASH isn’t facing the reality of today’s economy is not problem solving. This will not get us to “yes.”

I’ve also heard tough talk over the course of these negotiations like, “Take it or leave it,” and, “This is our last offer.” Ultimatums never work and certainly don’t get to “yes.”

We are a small, diverse, unique community. Sag Harbor is a jewel; yet let’s not forget that the most precious diamond was once a piece of coal under enormous pressure. We must, together, focus on getting to “yes” in these teacher’s negotiations, and getting there with a smile, respect, encouragement, and a collective belief in Sag Harbor’s future.

It breaks my heart to see our children’s teachers walking a picket line. A teacher’s place is in their classroom, inspiring, encouraging, enlightening, lifting our children to new heights and opportunities, not silently walking a picket line, feeling unappreciated and alone.

We have a wonderful school board, the best board we’ve had in a long time. These are good people, in a thankless job, working very hard to build a world-class school district. When TASH and our school board get through this, and eventually work together, imagine what they can accomplish; certainly more than now, when they’re working apart.

No more blame, no more feet dragging, no more stonewalling.

This teacher’s strike has gone on long enough, and it’s time we get to “yes.” And, if we do this correctly, at the end of the day, our teachers and school board will begin a new era. Together with our community, parent’s association, and all constituents committed to a bright, productive future, regardless of the problem, conflict or issue, our shared goal will always be getting us to “yes!,” right here, in our town, Sag Harbor.


North Haven resident, Robbie Vorhaus, can be reached at robbie.vorhaus@google.com and www.facebook.com/robbie.vorhaus.


Parents Weigh In on Negotiations

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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.

Sag Harbor Teachers and Administration Back to the Bargaining Table

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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.”

Teachers Say They’re Seeking Middle Ground

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Nearly 70 teachers, parents, administrators and community members packed a math classroom at Pierson High School last Thursday night to listen to teachers tell their side of what has been happening with teacher contract negotiations. The Teachers Association of Sag Harbor (TASH) gave a presentation to supply some history and contradict the presentation given by the district’s attorney last month.

TASH and the district have been in contract negotiations for several months. Last June, when the current teacher’s contract expired, the two sides declared impasse — which called for a mediator to come in. In August that mediator met with the district, TASH and their attorneys to try to reach consensus on salary, healthcare in retirement and course approval among other issues. The mediation failed. At their last meeting, the two sides agreed to go to fact finding, where a representative from the Public Employee Relations Board (P.E.R.B.) will hear both sides and make a recommendation based on the findings. As of yesterday (Wednesday) school superintendent Dr. John Gratto said he has not yet heard from P.E.R.B. on the scheduling of the fact finder.

Eileen Kochanasz, guidance counselor and president of TASH began on Thursday by explaining that in her 34 years of teaching in the district, she has never been in this position before.

“The superintendent and the board of education believed that a press release issued by the teachers, which is a very common action during difficult negotiations, warranted an immediate exposure of the specific details of the proposals to the public,” she said.

Math teacher Jim Kinnier took the stand to discuss the issues that deal with salary. Kinnier said the district’s presentation talked about increases in salary that are given when a teacher pursues post graduate courses.

“What the district’s presentation didn’t state was that the teachers pay approximately the same amount or more to take those courses,” noted Kinnier who also compared the district’s salaries to those in surrounding districts.

He indicated that in Amagansett, teachers will receive a 3.5 percent increase for 2008-09 and a 3.75 percent increase for 2009-10. East Hampton and Southampton will be getting a 3.5 percent increase for 2008-09 and 2009-10 as well.

Kinnier explained that in February of last year, TASH offered a 4.5 percent increase, which he said was done so the teachers could negotiate down to a figure somewhere in the middle.

Kinnier then explained that on November 6, TASH offered a 3.9 percent increase and in December the district came back with a 2.5 percent increase.

During the presentation, Kinnier also compared teacher’s salaries with surrounding districts. He said, Sag Harbor offers $46,000 for a teacher at the first “step” if they are hired with a bachelor’s degree. According to his data, Sag Harbor pays those teachers lower than Mattituck and East Hampton and higher than Southampton. For teachers with a master’s degree with an additional 30 credits at “step” 15, Sag Harbor pays a bit less than $90,000, falling behind Southampton’s $95,000 and East Hampton, which is just above $95,000. According to Kinnier, Sag Harbor’s salary for that level is higher than Mattituck and Southold.

Social Studies teacher Jim Sloane spoke about health insurance. The district said during their presentation that they want to require all teachers after 2010 to contribute 15 percent to their health insurance in retirement.

Sloane said that teachers in Sag Harbor have paid more toward their health insurance for a longer period of time than the vast majority of Eastern and Suffolk BOCES school districts. The teachers want to maintain the current model, which is that only teachers hired after July 1, 2000 will pay 15 percent toward their health insurance in retirement.

“Currently more than 50 percent of the teachers in the district will contribute to their health insurance in retirement,” Sloane said.

At Monday’s board of education meeting, president Walter Wilcoxen read aloud a statement from the board in response to the TASH presentation.

“We will share TASH’s presentation with our attorney and ask him to compare our presentation and TASH’s presentation for the purpose of clarifying any misunderstandings we may have presented and to highlight any information TASH presented that we believe to be inaccurate,” Wilcoxen said.

He also said that the board takes “a long term view of the financial viability of the district…and the board of education is trying to alter the dynamic burden on taxpayers due to ever increasing health insurance and retirement contributions.”

“We will all have to work together in the future to address the challenges created by the economic tsunami that has befallen us,” Wilcoxen said on Monday.

Wilcoxen acknowledged the teachers and credited them as being a major contributor to the quality of education in Sag Harbor, but added that the students, taxpayers and the board are all “crucial to the current and future success of the district.”

At Monday’s meeting, former Sag Harbor school board president Walter Tice asked school board members if they had given TASH a reason why the board had decided to go public with information related to negotiations.

“We had negotiated to a stalemate,” Wilcoxen responded. “I think the public has a right to know, this was not an attempt to negotiate in public. For me it was a fair position.”

Wilcoxen further argued that there is nothing in law that states that the board of education could not go public. He added that the district’s presentation, “didn’t belittle anyone.”

“Almost every time this [going public] has been done, it has led to bad relations between the parties,” countered Tice. “Now it’s all out there.”

“What I’m suggesting,” added Tice, “is that you take into consideration…getting back into traditional negotiations for the public and for the community of Sag Harbor.”

 

 

Teachers Protest in Sag Harbor

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Sag Harbor School District attorney Tom Volz speaks at a special BOE meeting on Dec. 19

 

Last week, teachers in the Sag Harbor UFSD met outside both the elementary and high schools before school brandishing signs to protest the school board’s move to make public information pertaining to teacher contracts.
“Don’t Dismantle a Decade’s Progress in One Year,” “Keep the Excellence Going” and “Invest in Your Child’s Future,” read some of the signs held by teachers as they greeted parents and honking horns before school Friday morning.
The Teachers Association of Sag Harbor (TASH) and the board of education have been negotiating teachers’ contracts for nearly 10 months. At the end of June, the two sides went to impasse — a stage that requires a mediator. After one meeting, it was decided by both sides that the mediator was not going to help them reach an agreement. The teachers and the district met again in hopes of bargaining at the table earlier this month, but the two sides could not agree.
They did, however, jointly decide to go to fact-finding, a stage of negotiation that involves bringing in an individual from the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) to look at both sides and make a non-binding decision. By January, a fact-finder should be in place and school superintendent Dr. John Gratto said that this is not the first time he has been involved in the process.
“I’ve been through fact finding before and it is a fair process,” he said on Monday, “The fact-finder renders his answer to questions on both sides then both parties need to re-assess based on the recommendations.”
But last Thursday, the teachers were noticeably absent from a special board meeting called by the school board to share with members of the community negotiation information on teachers’ contracts. At that meeting, the district’s attorney, Tom Volz, gave a presentation outlining what the district is asking for and what the teachers want and where the relative discrepancies lay.
TASH president Eileen Kochanasz said sharing information about negotiations with members of the public is “unfavorable.” In recent months, Kochanasz, a Pierson High School guidance counselor, had criticized the board for stating at board meetings that they would not negotiate with the teachers in public, yet, she added, by calling the special meeting “You [the board] just did.”
On Thursday, Volz outlined for the public the salaries of teachers within the district, and how much of an increase they would get this year if given the raises the teachers are requesting.
According to Volz, TASH is proposing a 3.9 percent increase for teachers. That means a teacher with a bachelor’s degree in their second year of teaching would earn $50,115 for the 2008-2009 school year, an increase of $4,178 over last year. For teachers with a master’s degree or a bachelor’s degree plus 45 credits, the salary would be $54,575 with the raise as proposed by TASH, giving these teachers a $4,551 or 9.1 percent raise (which includes a built in step increase) over last year.
According to Volz, at the highest step level, a teacher with 27 years in the school district, a master’s degree and an additional 30 credits, earns $113,579 (without the raise proposed by TASH) — the second highest salary for teachers at that level in the area.
Kochanasz said that not long ago, however, the teachers in Sag Harbor received salaries noticeably lower than those of teachers in nearby districts.
“In 2004, we were finally able to reduce the gap for teachers,” Kochanasz said, “Now we could lose what we gained.”
Kochanasz expressed her frustrations with the district, and said superintendent Dr. John Gratto and school board members have been unable to negotiate in a “give and take” fashion. She added that the district has been meeting TASH with proposals already prepared and have not been willing to budge beyond what was on the table.
Some of the other major sticking points in the teachers’ contracts include health insurance in retirement, academic support responsibilities, and coursework approval for teachers looking to enhance their teaching skills. Teachers are also asking to keep advanced payment for vacations, something the district wants to change. The district also would like to change the requirements for personal leave, so that teachers are not permitted to take off a day prior to or directly following a school holiday.
Volz also outlined in his presentation that the district would like teachers to electronically post their homework assignments, grading policies, field trips and major test dates on the school’s website.
The 30 or so attendees of Thursday’s meeting also learned that, according to Volz, teachers are asking to receive 50 percent of their unused sick leave and personal leave in cash upon retirement.
“We have a fabulous school and fabulous test scores to prove it. I don’t know why they [the district] want to create this atmosphere,” said Kochanasz who felt that Thursday’s presentation by the board was in “blatant disregard” and “disrespect” to those who work within the school. She also said the custodians and secretarial contracts have yet to be agreed upon.
Walter Tice has sat on both sides of this argument, first as a teacher in Yonkers for more than 30 years and then as member of Sag Harbor’s school board for seven years. For four of those years, Tice served as school board president and he was involved in the last contract negotiation with TASH.
“It’s unfortunate that they chose to negotiate in public,” said Tice. “The general wisdom is that once you start to bargain in public, your ability is restricted.”
Tice also said that the information presented on Thursday was a “PR story from the board.”
He added that there are some very complicated issues that would be difficult for the community to grasp from just one presentation.
“It simplifies issues from both sides,” he said. “They both have long contract issues and this tends to politicize these issues.”
“And it’s not good for the morale,” Tice added. “These people are actually teaching in your classroom, you don’t want them mad at you. You can solve your differences rationally, not by hanging them out to the public.”
“I think we accurately portrayed the issues of all sides,” said Gratto of last Thursday’s meeting, “I think all that [meeting] has done is informed people.”
“Reasonable people can reach reasonable results,” he added.

Mitten Line

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Some parents look forward to the holiday season, scrambling to buy gifts for friends and family, buying decorations and spending money on yards of wrapping paper. For them, this is a fantastic time of the year. But for others, holiday shopping is a dreaded event. This year, especially, it has become difficult for those with limited funds to make Christmas special for their kids.

For those with children in Sag Harbor Elementary School who cannot afford to purchase gifts this year, the school provides some relief through their “mitten line” — a popular holiday giving program that allows students to choose a paper mitten off a corkboard in the school which describes a child and the gifts they desire.

The mitten line started as a previous program called “The Giving Tree” — named after a popular children’s book by Shel Silverstein. Guidance counselor Eileen Kochanasz, who now works at Pierson High School, began the program through the elementary school guidance office nearly 20 years ago. Current elementary school counselor Michelle Grant renamed the program “The Mitten Line” after a short story that she wrote. In her rhyming story, Grant outlines how a child finds a mitten with the wishes of another child written on it. The child then feels proud on Christmas Day, having helped make Christmas better for someone else.

“We receive a wish list from the parents,” said Grant, explaining how the mitten line process works. Parents are found using school registration documentation or other information that indicates a family may be in need of financial assistance, especially at this time of year.

“Some of the parents contact me,” Grant said. “I am the only one who knows who is getting the gifts.”

“We ask the kids to bring in the gifts unwrapped so that we can give them to the parents unwrapped,” she said and added. “We like the parents to feel involved, and they prefer to wrap the gifts themselves and if they need it — we give them the wrapping paper.”

Grant said this year there were 275 mittens that were hung in the hallway at the school, representing a total of 18 families in the district who will receive the gifts. This year, according to Grant, there are 30 kids among the families and they will each receive eight presents.

Grant also said that each child gets certain staple items — like new pajamas, a hat, gloves or scarf, a book, and an arts and crafts item.

“Sometimes there are bigger ticket items like a new bike,” Grant said, “And we can get those from donations by the Parents and Teachers Association (PTA) and Teachers Association of Sag Harbor (TASH).

“Its not easy for the parents,” she said, “It’s really hard to get the parents to ask for help and it can take time. Sometimes it’s situational or a recent divorce, a single parent or a medical issue.” 

Grant collects all the gifts in her office, and then said that she privately meets with the parents at their work, home, or street corner to hand them the gifts.