To the Editor:
Members of the Andover Regional Education Association (AREA) attended the Oct. 20 board of education meeting led by President Mary Helen Coiro, at which time she informed the public of the reason for the current state of impasse with the board of education:
“For months the association has tried to move the negotiations process along; however, the board continues to hold the process hostage as they repeatedly defy our contract. At issue is the fact that our contract explicitly states that we can only be assigned one lunch or recess duty. Our administrators, with the full backing of the board, have been assigning two or three lunch or recess duties per week, resulting in a portion of our own lunchtime being taken away. This is a blatant display of the utter disrespect that the board has for us and the contract that we live by. After grievances were filed, the matter was decided in our favor by a state-appointed arbitrator and was subsequently upheld in court when the Board challenged the arbitrator’s decision.”
Coiro continued: “In the spirit of negotiations and to avoid yet another grievance, the association offered one additional lunch or recess duty per week. Despite our movement on this issue to now offer two lunch or recess duties instead of one, our compromise was rejected by the Board’s bargaining team because they still demand three lunch or recess duties. While this temporary proposal was made approximately six months ago by the association, it was only accepted by the board three weeks ago, and is set to expire on Dec. 31, 2021, unless the association agrees to extend it. If we do not extend it, the situation regarding lunch and recess duties will revert to the terms of the arbitration award and the court decision, both of which were in our favor. As things stand at this moment, there are no negotiations scheduled for the remainder of the calendar year, and a fact-finding hearing will occur sometime after the holidays. So, absent some significant action taking place, you should not expect that the interim award initiated by the Association will be extended. The Board has made clear that they are willing to take the additional time as per the temporary agreement without providing any additional compensation.”
It was further noted by Coiro that “in the last three years, we have had six cases in arbitration, and the association has won every case. Literally hundreds of thousands of dollars have been needlessly and recklessly spent by the district because the board repeatedly chose to violate our contract rather than honor our collectively negotiated agreement. The board’s refusal to abide by our current contract, resulting in the matter being settled by an arbitrator, has resulted in the board not only having to pay back pay and the cost of the arbitrator, but also fees of the district’s lawyers to pursue these cases. It is our belief that these costs, along with the anticipated fact-finders fee, will ultimately cost the district approximately $250,000. These hundreds of thousands of dollars could have been better spent educating our children and offering a fair and reasonable contract to the staff. After the interim agreement was signed, we met with the state-appointed fact finder in the hope of making progress towards a new agreement. The association was pleased that the board finally gave us counter offers for the first time and we settled a few relatively minor issues. Then we discussed salary. The Association has already made a huge concession by agreeing to add an additional lunch or recess duty without additional compensation. That concession is a valuable one to both parties. An extra half hour of work per week by each employee equates to an increase in work of approximately 1.4% of work time per week. It seems very fair and reasonable that the members should reap some benefit from making that concession.”
In the last 15 months, according to Coiro, “the board’s bargaining team has not made a reasonable salary proposal to the association. The salary offer made by the board’s bargaining team in September 2020 was not only far below the average teacher salary settlement in Sussex County, but instead equaled a pay freeze because the board is essentially refusing to pay for the very salary guide they negotiated in our previous contract by providing the funds needed for teachers to advance to the next steps on the pay guide. At a time when districts are seeking to attract and retain the best teachers they can find, this seems counterintuitive. Every district in Sussex County is going through the same issues with state funding, but all of them have found ways to give fair and reasonable salary settlements to their employees. In the 15 months since the first salary offer from the Board, the only other offer that has been made was made two weeks ago. That offer was an increase of 0.05% (five hundredths of one percent) above their original offer. Frankly, this is a slap in the face to every employee in the district. And this is particularly true in the face of the good faith that the Association has shown in trying to get past the lunch and recess duty issue.”
In closing, Coiro pointed out that “we are now heading into fact finding, which will cost the board, and the taxpayers even more money, money that could be used to settle the contract.” She urged the board to “please stop the needless spending of taxpayer’s money on lawyers and mediators to fight against the employees who have worked so hard to serve the children of this community” and to “give our teachers, paraprofessionals, secretaries and custodians the contract they deserve, one that is fair and reasonable.”
Following the conclusion of Ms. Coiro’s comments, board president Dr. Robert Koroski announced that he was would not respond publicly to the comments made pertaining to negotiations.
Andover Regional Education Association
Editor’s note: The Andover Regional Education Association (AREA), which represents teachers, secretaries, custodians, and paraprofessionals, has been working under an expired contract since July 2020.