School Committee dips into reserve funds to balance budget

Union rejects proposals to defer salaries
Thu, 07/23/2020 - 5:30pm
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With the New Shoreham Teachers Association rejecting the most recent proposals by the School Committee, members dipped into an emergency fund that will help pay for some needed programs, as well as a math teacher who will be hired at $127,000 a year.

The vote to approve a school budget for 2021 at $5,468,186, while using $96,343 from the fund balance, was 3-1. Member Jessica Willi voted nay primarily because she objected to the cost of hiring the new math teacher. Voting yes were Chair Bill Padien, Vice Chair Annie Hall and member Persephone Brown. Member Kara Stinnett was absent.

The need to approve a final budget was urgent. It had to get to the Town Council by Tuesday, July 21 in order to be on the warrant for the Financial Town Meeting that will be held on Monday, July 27 at 7 p.m. at the Block Island School gymnasium.

School Supt. Mike Convery said that two memoranda of agreement were sent to the teachers’ union, but the rejection of the first proposal made the second offer a moot point. In essence, the proposal was to enter into a new three year contract this year, with raises deferred the first year and moved to the second and third year in the contract. With the rejection of the MOA, the 2.25 percent increase called for in the current contract will kick in this year. (There will be a 2.5 percent increase next fiscal year.)

Convery said that union representatives Jessica Wood and Matt Moran were on the phone attending the virtual meeting and had asked to address the committee.

“It’s okay by me as long as they are willing to hear back from us, as well,” said Padien.

Wood said the MOA was rejected in part because it impacted pay raises for teachers that would be retiring in the next five years.

“The vote went the way it did because the retirees would be taking a lifelong financial hit for the MOA you proposed,” said Wood. Members were concerned that a contract renegotiated in 2023 without addressing the loss of pay increase during the previous two years was “unacceptable.” Wood noted that a teacher’s retirement pay is based on the salary of their last five years of employment.

She said an MOA that would “protect the retirees would be a lot more acceptable.”

Padien asked why the union assumed that in the coming years “the town will be flush with money?”

“I’m sorry, there are other things that could be chopped other than living wages to the hardworking members of the community,” said Wood. She said the town could “adjust the tax rate or do whatever they have to do to make it happen. We have a legally binding contract.”

“You are members of the entire community, not just your own little community,” said Padien. “Everybody in the community is in dire straits and the shoe could drop tomorrow.” Padien asked the union to allow the school committee to enter into periodic dialogues with the union in the future if and when the financial conditions in the town changed, as proposed by the MOA.

“Why give you all of that in one year when nobody has any idea what the revenue will be in a year from now? We were just asking the Teachers Association to be a little user-friendly to the community when everyone is struggling to make ends meet,” Padien said.

“We are being user-friendly to the community,” said Wood. “We are working more hours than ever before during this pandemic.” Rather than being thanked for their work, Wood said, the committee was saying “sorry, we can’t compensate for the ‘above-and-beyond’ we’re doing. We’re getting very little recognition and that can be very discouraging. We’re professionals and take this seriously, but this is too much. These were hard-fought gains for our wages and it’s our responsibility to our members and the teachers that retire in the next five years. The pension is determined by the last five years of work.”

After more give and take, committee member Willi said the time for more discussion was over and cuts had to be made.

“We’ve had from June 20 until now” to negotiate, said Willi. That time “has come and gone,” she said. “There is not going to be another outcome and we need to figure out our budget. We have to present a budget to the town. I’m ready to move on to make these cuts to balance the budget.”

The pay increase for the teachers added up to about $62,000 and overall the committee needed to find more than $96,000, including the need to cover the salary of the new math teacher. Rather than chip away at various line items, such as heating oil or teachers’ conferences, Padien recommended taking about $96,000 from the school district’s emergency fund, which was approved by the 3-1 vote.

Block Island School teachers submitted the following response to The Block Island Times:

As teachers and community members on Block Island, we feel compelled to respond to recent actions and discussions of the New Shoreham School Committee.

A little background information. School did not close in March 2020. Across the state, teachers had their April ‘vacation’ moved into March, and then used that time to scramble to make plans to move learning 100 percent online with a weeks’ notice. We stepped up to do so, as we are all fully committed to taking care of our students and supporting their learning at the highest possible level. School then remained online for the rest of the school year (until June 19th on Block Island) with teachers working far more hours at home than they would have in regular school days, negotiating a steep learning curve for all and supporting students as much as possible. Block Island had astonishing levels of success with online learning for many students, and provided major support for all who needed assistance. Most teachers started our days early, ended them late and stayed in touch with students, colleagues and parents throughout evening and weekend time. No word of acknowledgment or thanks ever came from School Committee members during or after these difficult months.

Currently, we are planning for a return to school in the midst of a pandemic. Teachers are heavily involved with summer planning, both on official committees and on their own — all without compensation. The state requires three models to be developed — fully in-person, hybrid, and fully online. Although we would all clearly prefer to return to in-person classrooms, none of the CDC or state recommendations can guarantee the safety of children, staff or teachers in the building. Our stress level is high, and classroom teachers will take the brunt of the risk and extra responsibility as we try to keep ourselves and the community’s children safe.

The town and school predict a budget shortage based on the pandemic, although the amount of this shortage remains unclear and estimates have not been publicly shared. The New Shoreham School Committee recently tried to negotiate with teachers to take a pay freeze for 2020-2021, opening the second year of a three-year contract, and repeatedly using as leverage the fact that town employees and certain administrative school employees had agreed to a freeze. Teachers rejected the proposed freeze at the meeting of July 20, and other cuts were subsequently made in order to balance the budget. A new, full time middle/secondary math position was left in the budget, the argument for which was compelling.

The freeze would have prevented a raise of 2.25 percent for teachers, and foregoing this money would not have solved the full budget issue or destroyed any of us financially for one year. It would, however, have had wider reaching implications, especially for teachers planning to retire within the next five years. Since pension amounts are determined in R.I. based on the average of the final five years of salary, taking a pay freeze within that time period has permanent impact on future income for these teachers. These issues were the primary reason teachers wanted to negotiate changes to the Memorandum Of Agreement that included the pay freeze.

At this point, instead of amending the agreement, the pay freeze for teachers has been taken off the table by the School Committee. Unfortunately, tension still exists between the School Committee and teachers, as was evident at the last several meetings when some members claimed that the teachers’ refusal of the freeze was a ‘slap in the face’ to this community, and that we should feel ‘lucky’ to have our jobs at all during the pandemic. All of us do in fact feel lucky to serve our community in the way that we have been trained. And we all consider students our first priority; they are the reason we are teachers. These negative and critical attitudes are incredibly saddening for individuals who have worked so hard to keep our children safe and learning for so many years, and who are being asked to continue to do so now at direct risk to our own health. Teachers have been under tremendous stress and time strain throughout these difficult months, and now face great personal risk and uncertainty with return to school plans. Surely we deserve both respect and fair consideration. Although our contract has been honored, we have felt both disrespected and unheard throughout this process.

To listen to upcoming School Committee Meetings (participating in meetings is by advance request), please go to www.bischool.net and click on School Committee/School Committee Agendas and Supplemental Information and then on the upcoming meeting.

The July 20th meeting can be accessed online at: https://us02web. zoom.us/rec/share/2tBUD67xrG - JISZXEtkjFXe0vGdrAX6a82yRIq_ NbyhsB51Qx5FvREFX8Wa6nu0K

Sincerely and with regret,

Susan Gibbons, Science, 8th-12th

Joanne Warfel, ELL/Coordinator

Joan Baker, Reading Specialist

Shannon Cotter Marsella, 6th grade ELA and 5th-7th Science

Marguerite Donaldson, LICSW, School Social Worker

Maureen Flaherty, English 8,9,10, AP Computer Science, Senior Project

Jessica Wood, Math, 8th-12th

Maura Cousins, Foreign Language

Judy Durden, 3rd grade teacher

Matthew Moran, Library/Computers

Lisa Robb, Art Teacher, K-12

Lauri McTeague, 1st grade teacher

Stacy Henshaw, 2nd grade teacher

John Tarbox, Physical Education