Before contract negotiations have even begun on a new teachers contract — the existing one expires July 30 — the two sides are at loggerheads over the breach of a clause in the contract that the union says extends their contract one year.
According to Supt. Victor Mercurio, union officials told him earlier this month that since they were not notified in writing about the school department’s desire to negotiate a new contract, the existing contract would be renewed for an additional year.
Although that language does exist in the contract between the teachers and the school department, that is not how school officials see it.
“We were surprised and disappointed,” said School Committee Chair Deidre Gifford. “There’s no reason why they can’t sit down and talk to us.”
“I think they’re embarrassed or they should be, about taking this position,” said schools lawyer Matt Oliverio, referring to the teachers’ refusal to negotiate. “This School Committee has been honest and open and worked collaboratively with this union.”
Judy Cavanaugh, co-president of the union (the East Greenwich Education Association), said the union had no comment. Emails and a phone call to the EGEA’s NEA representative Jane Argentieri went unanswered Tuesday.
In a press release issued Monday afternoon, the School Department wrote, “... it is disappointing to hear from our teacher’s union … that they have declined to open negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement.”
The release continues: “The stated reason for the union’s reluctance to open contract negotiations is the absence of a written request from the School Department prior to December 1, 2011. This is a technicality that the School Department historically has not observed.”
Mercurio acknowledged that the school department did indeed miss that deadline.
But, he said, “when we looked at whether or not communication had come from here in the last few negotiations, I could not find anything that came from here,” he said, referring to actions taken by the school department before previous negotiations.
According to Matt Oliverio, lawyer for the school department, the NEA union representative Jane Argentieri sent a letter to then-Supt. Charlie Meyers on Oct. 20, 2008, requesting that negotiations begin, citing state law. Under Rhode Island General Law 28-9.3-8, a union is required to give notice to begin collective bargaining.
She did not, he said, cite the East Greenwich contract, but instead the state statute. The reason the union had in the past notified the school department about beginning negotiations, he guessed, was that they had more to gain.
“In the past, it was always about enhancements,” he said. “They don’t want to bargain [now] because it’s about givebacks and reform.”
Oliverio said he did not accept blame for missing the Dec. 1 deadline.
“No one’s blaming anybody. It’s one of those things that happen,” he said. The teachers union “had actual and constructive notice of intent to bargain” and that should have been enough.
Supt. Mercurio said that no matter what, movement toward reform would continue. One of the most important reforms is the institution of a new teacher evaluation system, which is under way now.
“That’s not an insignificant piece, the evaluation system,” said Mercurio. “We have had what I would consider to be an exemplary partnership, and an exemplary team in place to talk about that work,” he said. That team includes school administrators and teacher union representatives. “They’re not negotiating, that team’s not negotiating. Basically what it’s doing is looking at the work in front of us and to try to move that work forward.”
"We think it’s really important to keep on moving on education reform,” said the School Committee’s Gifford, “and the door is open for the teachers to sit down and work with us.”
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