The contract negotiations between the T/E School District and the T/E Teachers Union (TEEA) started in early January. What is the saying about the ‘calm before the storm’ – I had been thinking that the teacher contract negotiations must have been going well as everything was quiet.
In a Community Matters post, Expert Negotiators Named as TESD Teacher Contracts Talks Begin, dated January 28, 2012, I wrote the following:
“ … With a cooperative tone, both sides have issued their preliminary statements – the school board recognizing the quality and standard of the District’s teachers but reinforcing the severity of our economic times. And the teachers union proudly applauding the school district as one of the best in the state and stating their desire to work together through the contract negotiations…”
This week in the Tredyffrin-Easttown School District would suggest that I might have spoken too quickly. First, the T/E School Board publicly stated in a contract negotiation update on the school district’s website that ‘TEEA Negotiator Refuses to Discuss Healthcare Options”. The school district’s negotiator, Jeffrey Sultanik claims that TEEA “does not want any changes to the existing plan or premium share increases for the employee”. Sultanik suggests that the negotiator for the teachers union, Ruthann Waldie, refuses to budge on the healthcare issue. The school board has made it clear from the start that the teacher contract needs to focus on reducing healthcare costs. Having attended a number of finance committee meetings of the school district, the teacher’s benefits are routinely discussed, especially healthcare.
When the school districts’ negotiating team was named (Dan Waters, Sue Tiede and Art McDonnell in addition to Jeffrey Sultanik), I shared TEEA’s concern that there was no school board director serving on the negotiating team. The residents of TESD elected the school board members to serve them and at least one of them should be ‘at the negotiating table’. One of the school board directors, Kevin Buraks, is an attorney who specializes in the collection of unpaid real estate taxes in municipalities and school districts in Pennsylvania. Certainly, given his background, Buraks would have been qualified at the very least to participate as a contract negotiation ‘observer’. As far as I know (please correct me if I’m wrong) no prior contract negotiations in T/E school district ever occurred absent school board directors.
Soon after the school district posted the contract negotiations update on their website, TEEA fired back with a response that suggested the school district’s update is “a collection of factual inaccuracies, misinformation, mischaracterizations and personal attacks”. The response from the teacher’s union suggests a willingness and desire to negotiate issues … but at the bargaining table, not through press releases and websites, as the path that TEEA believes the school district has chosen.
Because there is no representation by the school board at the negotiation table, it is a bit like ‘whisper down the lane’. The information and updates that the school board receives are not through first hand attendance at the meetings, it is from one of the four members of the negotiating team. That’s not to suggest that the school district is intentionally misleading the public through its updates, but I would suggest that some of the nuances that occur in a meeting can be missed in the translation.
According to TEEA, the teachers union has presented a comprehensive set of proposals to the school district and are willing to discuss “the district’s finances, staffing levels, school calendar, health insurance, wages and all other important issues …”
As a taxpayer in this school district, I want to know that the contract negotiation updates are completely accurate … can the school board members provide that reassurance to the public. On the other hand, having attended a number of school district finance committee meetings, I also know that the current teacher healthcare benefits exceed much of what most of the residents of this school district receive themselves.
We are fortunate to live in one of the best school districts in the state and preserving that school system should be a priority to the residents, school district and the teachers. The new teacher’s contract needs to be line with our current economic reality. However, the negotiation process should be accomplished with a spirit of collaboration.
According to TEEA and the school district, there is no next negotiation session scheduled. I make a motion to move the contract negotiation process forward; do I hear a second?