WOONSOCKET — The School Committee's shift to a greater focus on cutting costs surfaced again this past week as the panel moved to oppose potential state legislation governing the negotiation of union employee contracts.
The panel voted 3-2 to adopt a resolution arguing against automatic continuation of contract provisions when an agreement expires, even as members of the committee commended teachers for their past efforts to reduce district employee costs.
The action also came as the committee approved sending out layoff notices to 54 union staffers under annual requirements for notifications. The layoffs, effective at the end of the school year, will allow the committee new options for reducing staffing during its upcoming work on next year's budget.
School Committee Chairwoman Anita McGuire Forcier, School Committeewoman Vimala Phongsavanh, and Committeeman Christopher Roberts overrode opposition by fellow members Eleanor Nadeau and John Donlon in approving the City Council-style resolution opposing contract continuation.
The measure notes that current state law does not provide for mandatory continuation of an existing collective bargaining agreement and that a Superior Court justice recently ruled state law defining when a contract ends overrides any prior agreement permitting continuation of the past agreement.
That issue surfaced in a recent East Providence case where that school committee chose to impose new working conditions after expiration of the teachers' contract rather than continue the terms of the past agreement. Superior Court upheld the committee's move and that decision is now under appeal before the state Supreme Court.
The General Assembly has also stepped into the debate of the issue while considering legislation, H-7250, which would allow the terms of expired contracts to remain in effect while negotiations were conducted on a new contract.
The resolution introduced by Forcier notes that school districts and cities and towns have witnessed a "calamitous reduction" in state aid with local communities losing over $185 million in state support between Fiscal 2007-2012.
At the same time, the resolution notes that cities and towns must comply with state law in capping increases in local property tax levies at 4.25 percent for 2012 — a rule that limits their ability to generate local revenue to cover rising budget expenses.
The resolution also points to a provision of state education law requiring that "the school committee of each school district shall be responsible for maintaining a school budget which does not result in debt," a rule more commonly referred to as a prohibition against deficit spending.
The resolution argues that while school committees may require employee concessions to comply with the limitations in funding, the proposed House bill would "mandate" that an expired contract continue in effect as talks continued on a replacement agreement, an option serving as a "disincentive" for unions to "bargain in good faith," while existing employee wages and benefits remained unchanged for an indefinite period.
The resolution concludes that the Woonsocket School Committee "respectfully requests that the Rhode Island General Assembly oppose H-7250 and any other legislative proposal that would mandate expired teacher contracts must continue at the existing terms and conditions..."
While voicing support for the measure, Committeeman Christopher Roberts said he was looking for it to help provide the committee with flexibility in its future budget work.
"We issued layoffs to over 50 people because we don't have a budget," Roberts said. "Things are so tough, we are going to need every option available to us."
The measure also comes as the school department works with outside financial help to determine if last year's $2.7 million deficit will be repeated in the budget ending June 30. A report on that concern is due from retired school finance director Dina Dutremble and the city's audit company, Braver PC, shortly.
Nadeau, however, suggested that the school committee would have the option to gain savings during upcoming negotiations with its employee unions as their existing agreement expires next year. The proposed state law, she noted, would provide that the existing contract simply remain in effect until a new contract were settled.
The Woonsocket School Department has been able to win significant contract savings from its staff over the past five years when members of the Woonsocket Teacher Guild agreed to reopen past agreements and drop approved contract increases. The guild accepted changes foregoing pay raises through the contract's expiration in June of 2013 and also modifications in healthcare coverage granting the school department more than $3 million in savings. The measures were aimed at heading off declines in state aid to Woonsocket that have forced reduction in the school budget from a high of $66 million annually to the $59 million approved by the city last year.
By contrast, Nadeau described the East Providence case against its teachers as an attempt to break the union.
"Everyone knows that's what's been going on, and if that is what this is going to be, I'm not going to support it," she said.
Donlon asked Richard Ackerman, the school department's legal counsel, whether the resolution could result in local teachers seeing their benefits — and/or pay — stopped by the department during a contract dispute.
The resolution, Ackerman said, would "put Woonsocket on record as opposing a change in state law," and in effect support the option of allowing a district to challenge the continuation of the terms of the past agreement.
Donlon, in turn, said he favored retaining the option of negotiating a solution between the sides.
Forcier made it clear during the discussion that the resolution in effect would "oppose a contract's continuation" after it expired.
While conceding that the district has benefited from its teachers being "great and having given back much more than any other community has received," Forcier said she would support the resolution as a way for the committee to meet it budget challenges.
"We are here to look at the future, even five years from now," Forcier said.
Phongsavanh also voiced support for the resolution and noted it would help the committee retain the ability to negotiate with its union employees.
"I believe the ability to negotiate is what is best for the students of Woonsocket," she said. "And I think we have the ability to negotiate." Phongsavanh said she also did not see the proposed state law as a "strong bill" and does not expect it to gain much support at the state level.
The panel in turn voted 3-2, with Nadeau and Donlon opposed, to approve the resolution as submitted.
After the decision, Jeff Partington, president of the Woonsocket Teachers Guild, said there have actually been two different court interpretations on the issue as to whether the terms of an existing contract can remain in effect during negotiations. One was in Warwick in the 1990s, supporting the continuation of terms; and there’s the more recent decision for East Providence disallowing the option.
The proposed House bill would clarify the matter and allow contracts to remain in effect, he said.
Teachers view the option as an incentive to reaching settlements when existing state laws limit their ability to go out on strike and do not provide the option of binding arbitration to settle a dispute.
"This resolution would give a school committee the ability to dictate terms and it would be another increase power for all school committees," Partington said.
Woonsocket teachers have already shown a willingness to work with the district through its difficult times and will do so in the future, he added.
"We always want to bargain in good faith and we hope that when the contract expires, everyone is going to be bargaining in good faith," he said.