Teacher contract talks going to mediation

B y Randal Smathers

 

Contract talks between the Granville school district and its teachers union are going to mediation on Wednesday, Oct. 17, with almost half a million dollars in state aid dependent on a successful conclusion.

The president of the Granville Teachers Association, Christine Cook, and the superintendent, Mark Bessen, agree that the main issues are salaries and staffing.

The contract expired June 30, 2010, then was extended by a memorandum of agreement until June 30, 2011.

The urgency now comes from a state deadline on teacher evaluations, referred to in the negotiations as annual professional performance review or APPR. A teachers’ committee produced a plan for those evaluations in May, but in a letter (see page 8), Cook said the administration has blocked agreement on it by including “unacceptable riders to the agreement regarding instructional leaders.”

According to Cook, the positions, essentially department heads, were created by a two-year memorandum of agreement that ran out in June. The teachers wanted the positions revised with their input while the board wanted to retain them intact, and attached this as a rider to the APPR deal, according to Cook.

Bessen said the administration had in fact not connected the two issues and was willing to consider the department heads’ status and the APPR agreement outside the main contract and independent of each other.

The state requires districts to have an agreement finalized by February 2013. Bessen said in order to meet that deadline, based on what the state has laid out for a timetable to work through the process, they need to submit the base agreement between the teachers and the board “by mid-October.”

Failure to meet the February deadline would put $459,062 in state funding at risk.

 

Contractual issues

In terms of the contract itself, the teachers argue that they are the lowest-paid teachers in Washington County by a wide margin and want to make up some of the ground on their peers, although they would remain the lowest-paid. The administration counters that Granville has the least resources in the county to pay teachers with, which limits the pay scale.

Complicating matters, the teachers argue that the administration is among the highest-paid, and have provided a chart showing that James Donnelly in particular is the best-paid high school principal in the county at $106,000, including a $10,000 stipend.

Bessen said they are in the middle of the pack on administration pay, largely due to the experience of the staff, which drives up salaries.

It is difficult to make a true apples-to-apples compa

On staffing, in April 2011, teachers agreed to a pay freeze and to take on more health insurance costs in return for saving eight positions. However, four positions came open due to teacher resignations and retirements that the board chose not to replace through hiring; the teachers want to return to the staffing levels before those departures.

Bessen said the district did save the eight positions originally and was under no obligation to rehire after that. The teachers say that not replacing those positions has left the school “severely short-staffed.”

Cook pointed specifically to a guidance position that the school eventually replaced in the middle of the 2011-12 school year and to a shortage of science faculty, which has led to cancellation of several elective classes. While they are elective, such courses can help students on a college track for the sciences graduate with a broad base of course work.

Bessen argues that the district is “happy with the programs we are offering.”

“Some districts in the area, in the Adirondacks, are total bare-bones,” he said.

And while the district did add a guidance counselor back in, he said the administration did not replace a psychologist who retired, leaving the student support staff at eight: three guidance counselors, two social workers and the equivalent of three full-time positions in psychology.

He also said the teachers want to put hard limits on class sizes in the contract, which would force the district to hire another teacher “if you went one student over.”

“You can’t manage school district through contracts,” he said.

 

Next steps

The two sides have not held negotiations since June, when the administration agreed with the teachers declared they were at an impasse. The district’s labor relations attorney and a union representative then chose Robert Bentley from a state-approved list of mediators. If mediation succeeds, an agreement would go to both the board and the union members for ratification.

Both sides expressed faith in the ability of mediation to resolve the dispute.

“We’re just very optimistic that sitting down with a mediator will have a positive result,” Cook said.

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