Longtime employee clashes with school committee
Marsha Gutierrez listened as her attorney and a lawyer for the New Shoreham School Committee traded assertions about the terms and dates of her employment contract. At stake was whether Gutierrez will retire from the Administrative Assistant position she has held at the Block Island School for more than 36 years with the lifetime health benefits she says she was promised in her contract, or not.
The contract dispute, simmering for months, broke into the open on May 16 at a special meeting of the School Committee, requested by Gutierrez. It was the only item on the agenda and was aired in open session before a full house of teachers and other residents. Gutierrez wanted to hear from the Committee whether or not they were honoring her contract.
The School Committee did not vote on the matter, and there was no resolution. The matter is expected to be on the agenda for the School Committee’s meeting on Tuesday, May 28.
Gutierrez’s attorney, Mary Ann Carroll, implored the Committee to honor Gutierrez’s contract and insisted that because the meeting agenda said there would be “discussion and action” on the contract, the Committee had to act before the meeting ended.
“I don’t have to take any action,” School Committee Chair William Padien replied.
“Are you going to take an action?” asked Carroll.
“I’m not taking an action,” said Padien.
A few minutes later, after committee member Persephone Brown spoke briefly, Carroll again pressed for a decision.
“Your agenda says, ‘discussion and action,’’’ Carroll told Padien.
“As of 3:36 p.m. on May 16, 2019, there will be no action,” Padien said.
“Are you speaking for the committee, or for yourself?” asked Carroll.
“I’m speaking for myself,” Padien said.
Padien immediately made a motion to adjourn the meeting, seconded by member Jessica Willi. It passed. (Willi had not spoken during the meeting until then. Member Kara Stinnett did not speak. Member Annie Hall was absent.)
At the beginning of the meeting, Carroll showed the packed room the profile of Gutierrez in the May 18 issue of Block Island Times, with the quote that she is “the glue that holds the system together” as the Administrative Assistant.
“As of today,” Carroll said, Gutierrez “has worked for the Block Island school district 36 years and five months, since Dec. 16, 1982. Michael Convery is the 12th superintendent she’s worked for.”
For many of those years, Gutierrez worked under employment contracts that included a clause obligating the School Committee to continue to pay her medical insurance after her retirement, for the rest of her life, using whatever insurance plan was in effect at her retirement date. The R.I. legislature changed the law sometime before 2014, however, limiting health benefits for school retirees to Medicare with a Medicare supplement plan – a much less expensive option.
Carroll referred to School Committee meeting minutes to make the case that the promise of medical benefits for life after retirement is still in effect, despite the Committee’s later attempt to set an end date.
According to Carroll, in March 2014 the School Committee approved a motion (made by Chair Padien) to update the existing contract between Gutierrez and the school department to reflect the change in state law regarding Medicare supplements for retirees. In May 2014, Gutierrez and the School Committee entered into an employment contract for the three years from July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2017. That contract, Carroll pointed out, contains a commitment to continue paying for Gutierrez’s Medicare supplement premiums for life. It also has a provision stating that if the Committee failed to notify Gutierrez of its intentions to renew the contract or not by May 30, 2017, the contract “shall automatically extend for one more year.”
In 2017, Carroll continued, Gutierrez asked the School Committee to extend her contract for one more year. At a May 15, 2017 meeting, the Committee unanimously approved a motion to extend Gutierrez’s contract through the 2017-2018 school year, expiring on June 30, 2018. But Gutierrez never received any notice in writing of the School Committee’s intentions by May 30, 2018, Carroll claimed, so the contract rolled over for the 2018-2019 school year, expiring on June 30, 2019.
“So it’s our position,” Carroll explained, “that right now she’s in that rollover year.” There was no need to invoke the rollover provision in 2017, because the Committee had acted to extend the contract. Thus, according to Carroll, the contract’s promise of lifetime Medicare supplement insurance for Gutierrez still applies.
In July 2018 then-Superintendent Judith Lundsten asked the School Committee’s attorney, Denise Lombardo Myers, to write a letter to Gutierrez asking her to negotiate a contract for the 2018-2019 school year. The letter proposed to stop paying for Gutierrez’s post-retirement Medicare supplements on a set date.
Carroll maintains that the 2018 contract offer was unnecessary and improper: unnecessary because the rollover provision was in effect; and improper because the School Committee had not taken any action regarding Gutierrez’s contract. Myers said that Lundsten, “on her own authority, told the School Committee’s attorney (Myers) to write a letter with an offer.” Myers also said she did not know if Lundsten asked her to write the letter without the School Committee’s knowledge.
More importantly, however, Carroll argued that the School Committee violated the R.I. Open Meetings Act in 2018 by going into executive session to discuss Gutierrez’s contract without notifying her. The Open Meetings Act requires public bodies to give an employee advance written notice of their intention to discuss“the job performance of an employee,” and to advise the employee “that they may require the discussion to be held at an open meeting. ”In January 2019, Carroll filed a complaint with the R.I. Attorney General’s office alleging the violation. That complaint had not been resolved by the May 16 meeting.
“You will be paying”
For the School Committee’s part, Attorney Myers agreed with Carroll that Gutierrez’s 2014-2017 contract includes a one-year rollover provision, but she said that the rollover year was July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018, not 2018 to 2019 as Carroll claimed.
“The School Committee took an action” to extend the contract at its May 15, 2017 meeting, she said. The committee “formally renewed [the contract] and put it on record” in the minutes of that meeting.
Myers asserted that the contract with Gutierrez that started on July 1, 2014 “expired under its own terms” on June 30, 2018. She added that Gutierrez never responded to Myers’s letter in July 2018 outlining the new contract offer, or to a second letter sent in November 2018.
“I have no intention of negotiating when she’s under contract,” Carroll responded.
Later, Padien said that the Committee had attempted to get a meeting with Gutierrez and her attorney to resolve the dispute since October 2018. “We were trying to negotiate a different solution” and asked for a meeting. “We tried and tried and tried.”
“It was all about the health issue – for life, or not,” Padien said, stating that he was trying to be fiscally responsible in taking this position.
Carroll was confident that the Open Meetings Act complaint she filed in January 2019 would prevail.
“I stand by that complaint,” she said.
Carroll called the School Committee’s attempt to deny Gutierrez the medical benefits she was promised a “nasty action... Is that the way you treat your long-term employees?”
As for the contract dispute, Carroll told everyone present she believes Gutierrez will win if she files suit in R.I. Superior Court, “and you will be paying my attorney’s fees.”
After Padien abruptly ended the meeting, audience members expressed their support for Gutierrez.
“The teachers’ union is behind Marsha 100 percent,” said Maureen Flaherty, Co-President of the union local. The other Co-President, Matt Moran, agreed: “Absolutely.”
Attorney Carroll sharply criticized Padien’s conduct as chair of the meeting, noting that he was the only one of the four members present who spoke their mind and actively participated.
“How bad is it that Block Island has only one School Committee member?” asked Carroll.
“It was obvious that the committee members who were there had no idea what the dispute was,” Carroll told The Times. “This entire situation seems to be caused by the Chair with no input from the remainder of the committee.”