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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.

Sag Harbor Teacher Contracts – Still Waiting to Hear

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President of the Sag Harbor Board of Education, Walter Wilcoxen has been on vacation and missed the last school board meeting where nearly 50 teachers showed up in black shirts and buttons asking for new teacher contracts. In his place sat Theresa Samot who faced the upset teachers with fellow board members and superintendent, Dr. John Gratto.
The teachers contracts expired in June, and Gratto said on Tuesday that school attorney Tom Volz has been collecting data on surrounding districts and is expected to make a presentation to the superintendent and the school board on October 23.
The teacher contracts developed in 2004 expired on June 30. The teachers and school board were not able to come to an agreement on certain issues pertaining to the contracts so the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor (TASH) declared impasse in June, which required that a mediator come in to help negotiate.
TASH President Eileen Kochanasz, said that her group is not invited to the October 23 meeting and she believes it may be a while after that meeting before TASH can meet with the board and superintendent to go over the contracts.
“I don’t know what to anticipate,” said Kochanasz who explained that after the school board met with Gratto and Volz last time, she was left in the dark about the next meeting date.
“I hope we will hear something at the end of this October 23 meeting,” Kochanasz said, “but I can’t be sure.”
Kochanasz said the data being collected by Volz has to do with salaries in other nearby districts, but Wilcoxen said the district is also looking at other issues involved, like post retirement data, which is also a concern.
“Tom Volz is compiling a review of our bargaining position – but it’s more than that,” Wilcoxen said.
Business Manager Len Bernard explained that an actuarial study is being performed by Milliman Inc., a global consulting and actuarial firm, regarding post retirement issues including health benefits, which he expected to have received on Tuesday. This is a new requirement that will determine post retirement issues for the next 20 to 25 years.
“It would be irresponsible to go ahead now, for the community,” Wilcoxen said on Friday, “We are asking ourselves, are we going to have this great school 10 years from now? Well that all depends on what we do now.”
“We want to make a recommendation about everything that is known so we can do our due-diligence,” Wilcoxen said, “We would back ourselves into a corner if we didn’t.”
Wilcoxen also added that he believes the old contract is not a bad contract, and the board is trying to do the best thing for the district.
“Hopefully we will be signing in the next few weeks,” Wilcoxen said, “We’re moving forward not backward, so that is positive.”