Pattye Benson

Community Matters

school district transparency

T/E Teachers Union Turns on the Transparency Lights in Contract Negotiations

The teachers union in T/E school district, Tredyffrin Easttown Education Association (TEEA), provided an update on the negotiation process late last night. The basis for the union’s email was to deliver what the community members have been asking for from TEEA and the school board — transparency.

This latest press release from TEEA is comprehensive … and offers us ‘personal and up close’ information from the union’s perspective on the contract negotiation process. (Something that many of us have asked for, but told was not possible during the ongoing contract negotiations). With this latest communication, TEEA is laying the gauntlet down, providing us with documents that range from copies of their initial contract proposal, the District’s response to an explanation of the grievances.

On April 25, I wrote a post titled, ‘Seeking Transparency in TESD Teacher Contract Negotiations’ in which I called for transparency in the negotiations, suggesting that both sides ‘open the door’ and let the sunlight shine in. Because of the secrecy surrounding the negotiations, even the discussion on Community Matters has turned to conjecture; a world of ‘he said, she said’, which is never good. Some will suggest that this latest attempt on the part of TEEA to be more transparent and inform the public is nothing more than a ‘tactic’ to win favorable support from the parents, students and taxpayers. I will respectfully disagree.

Regardless if you agree or disagree with the contents of the teacher’s proposal, clearly TEEA now sees the merits of the community hearing the facts. To date, misinformation was perpetuated and the line between fact and fiction blurred, with the public left to fill in the gaps between the partial or half-truths from either side. The teachers’ contract accounts for a significant part of the District’s budget and strongly influences the financial ‘bottom line’.

To read TEEA’s latest press release, ‘T/E Teachers, Counselors, and Nurses Offer Opinion on the Negotiation Process’, click here.

Click here to read the teacher’s union initial proposal dated January 9, which TEEA believed to be a starting point for discussion. Their offer contained a one-year salary freeze for all teachers, second year freeze for those at master level. According to the union, they also ‘made repeated verbal commitments to discuss changes to healthcare benefits’.

The School Board rejected the teacher’s initial proposal on February 9. Click here to read the District’s 113-page counter-offer to TEEA. According to TEEA, this is the only offer to date made by the Board. If you recall, several teachers had commented on Community Matters regarding the District’s offer, claiming that family health coverage was not included in the District’s offer. Many readers questioned whether the elimination of family health coverage was in the counter-proposal; suggesting that unless the public saw it ‘in writing’, the information may not be accurate.

We can now read the District’s counter-proposal and it appears clear to me that option for teachers to insure their spouses and/or children is indeed eliminated, as is dental and vision coverage. I do not see how it can be interpreted differently – there appears this offer has no option for teachers to have family health insurance coverage through their employment in TESD. In addition, to be clear, the District’s counter-proposal includes no option for the teachers ‘to buy’ health insurance for their families.

In their latest press release, TEEA goes on to detail other areas the District counter-proposal seeks to eliminate or reduce, some of which could be viewed as reasonable given the economic climate and the severity of the budget situation – example, reducing the teacher’s stipend rates on mentor programs and homebound instruction. The District in their counter-offer seeks to freeze teacher salaries indefinitely – given the economics, although not satisfactory, the school board probably feels they have little option.

TEEA revised their initial proposal (click here) and presented it to the District on February 29. The District responded that they were unwilling to discuss the health care benefits. According to TEEA, it was shortly afterward that the ‘demotions of professional staff for economic reasons’ became a viable budget strategy option. As a result, the public has watched the circus-like atmosphere that now ensues at school board and finance committee meetings which has included students, parents, teachers and taxpayers. Additionally, the last couple of meetings have included the District releasing information that TEEA has filed two grievances, leaving some of us with questions. The union addresses the grievance issue in a FAQ, click here to read.

As I have repeatedly stated in other posts, making the teacher contract negotiation process transparent for the public would help the community understand how our children will be taught and how our tax dollars will be invested. The relationship between teachers and school administrators is an important element in what shapes this school district. There is no better way to understand this relationship than to observe the contract negotiation process. However, based on the way this process has worked to date, to suggest that the current relationship between the teachers, administrators and school board is ‘strained’ would be quite an understatement!

With the release of this information from the teachers union, I believe that TEEA is attempting to shine light and bring transparency to the contract negotiation process. However, for the transparency process to be successful, requires open dialogue from both sides.

Is it possible that the District and TEEA can put the needs of the students and families first and at the same time, honor the public investment of taxpayers? Can both sides be more open about the negotiation process – talk truths to each other and to the public?

Demotion & Class Size Remain as T/E Budget Strategies … Teacher Union Weighs In

Opening a door that most school districts would prefer to keep closed.

Teacher contract negotiations have traditionally been cloaked in secrecy. In my perfect world of transparency, school districts would open the teacher contract talks to the public. Letting the sunlight shine on the negotiations, parents, taxpayers and employees would benefit by seeing the open dialogue around our district’s priorities. Open negotiations would hold the District and TEEA (Tredyffrin Easttown Education Association) accountable for how they are dealing with the contract negotiations. I know, I know, not possible . . . it will never happen.

Those involved in teacher contract negotiations would probably claim that critical issues such as teacher pay, benefits, and overall responsibilities should fall within the client-lawyer privilege of privacy. I am sure that those at the ‘negotiating table’ would say that the talks should be private in order to foster a more open and frank discussion among the participants. In the case of TESD, this seems twisted logic at best. Why do I say this? Reason … There is no representation by the T/E school board at the negotiation table. As a result, 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, but rather from the four members of the negotiating team. Three members of the team are employees of the District (Superintendent Dan Waters, Director of Personnel Sue Tiede and Business Manager Art McDonnell) and the fourth member of the team is professional negotiator, attorney Jeffrey Sultanik.

I don’t know how the rest of the taxpayers feel about the ‘no seat at the table’ by an elected school board member issue, but I stand by my original view. The school directors were elected by, and are responsible to, the people of the Tredyffrin Easttown School District. I do not think it is fair to the taxpayers and the teacher contract process that there is not at least one school board member participating directly on the negotiation team.

Based on the many comments received in regards to the teacher contract negotiations and budget strategies, I reached out to TEEA president Laura Whittaker. Stating in my email to Ms. Whittaker, that ‘my intention was not to in any way jeopardize or breach the teacher/school district negotiating process’, I asked her several questions. Does TEEA believe that any of the District’s budget strategies currently being discussed (class size, demotion of professional staff, $50 activities fee, etc.) could have a potential negative effect on the quality of the District’s educational program. I also asked if members of TEEA were the decision makers in regards to the TESD 2012-13 budget, what solutions would the teachers offer that could bridge the current financial crisis in the District.

Understanding the limitations posed by the teacher contract negotiations, Ms. Whittaker proved the following statement for Community Matters and I thank her. Reading Ms. Whittaker’s statement, I was reminded again that if the contract talks were held in public, the taxpayers would know what the the teachers are offering; including changes to their health care plan that would save the District money.

“Because of the ground rules established in the negotiations process, I am limited in my ability to share specific aspects of our proposal and negotiations with you.

You have asked what solutions we offer. We are willing to discuss alternative approaches to health care coverage and funding as a means for the District to save money. Additionally, although we are not able to release the details of our salary proposal, we are confident in stating that our salary requests are modest and reasonable.

We have many concerns about the District’s proposal to demote our most experienced, educated teachers. Of course, we are fundamentally concerned about the negative impact that it will have on the educational program and the well-being of our membership. However, if the School Board chooses to implement demotions and the hiring of part time staff becomes the norm, they must realize that T/E will become an undesirable place for the most qualified educators to pursue a career. Simply stated, T/E has been able to attract the best and the brightest to teach its children. How will the District be able to continue to attract the best and the brightest if we are currently choosing to replace our own best and most educated teachers with part-time employees?

With regard to class size, studies have concluded that increased class sizes have a negative impact on student performance. Individual support and attention will most certainly suffer if class sizes are larger. Regarding the proposed $50 participation fee, we have no official position. As far as other budget strategies are concerned, demotions and increases in class size, are (to our knowledge) the only two major strategies being considered by the Board.

The members of TEEA remain committed to achieving a mutually beneficial settlement with the District.”

Thank you for providing this opportunity.

Laura Whittaker
President, TEEA

If you are reading today’s post on Community Matters and have an interest in our school district, I hope that you will plan to attend the school board meeting tonight at 7:30 PM.

On the subject of demotion, other area school districts are keeping a close eye on TESD. The teachers union in Radnor School District has notified their members of tonight’s TESD meeting and suggested their members attend. At Conestoga HS, the demotion issue has caused concern among students and they are organizing support for their teachers.

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