Tag Archive | "Teachers Association of Sag Harbor"

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.

Teachers Union Protests Stalled Negotiations in Sag Harbor

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web_TASH Rally 10-19-09_7559

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.”

web 2_TASH Rally 10-19-09_7584

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/


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.