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Thursday, September 22, 2016

School board-custodian case moves close to Supreme Court

By TINA FORBES
Staff Writer

NASHUA - The Nashua School District is one step closer to having its case considered by the New Hampshire Supreme Court after the state Public Employee Labor Relations Board denied the district's request for a rehearing on its plan to privatize some of its custodial workforce.

The labor board handed down its decision on Tuesday, more than a month after the school board voted to appeal the labor board's initial decision in favor of the district's custodians. ...

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NASHUA - The Nashua School District is one step closer to having its case considered by the New Hampshire Supreme Court after the state Public Employee Labor Relations Board denied the district's request for a rehearing on its plan to privatize some of its custodial workforce.

The labor board handed down its decision on Tuesday, more than a month after the school board voted to appeal the labor board's initial decision in favor of the district's custodians.

"This was just another part of the process," said Sandra Ziehm, president of the Nashua Board of Education, in a Wednesday phone interview. "Unless the board votes to do something else, we're now heading to the (state) Supreme Court."

Seeking a rehearing is a step that must be taken before such a case gets to the level of the state Supreme Court.

The dispute began between the custodians and school district officials in September 2015 when the board voted to explore privatizing 101 custodial jobs, citing the need to save money for the upcoming budget year. In December 2015, the union representing Nashua's custodians filed an unfair labor complaint with the state's Public Employee Labor Relations Board.

The union claimed the district was bargaining with only a portion of the union since the district has agreed to negotiate a contract with members of Local 365 who are not custodians. On Aug. 4, the PELRB announced that it had found in favor of the custodial union, and it directed the school board to begin negotiating with the union.

At the beginning of August, the school board voted to both reopen negotiations and appeal the PELRB decision to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, but first needed to seek the rehearing.

In the meantime, Ziehm said, negotiations with the custodial union for a new contract are ongoing. The district negotiation team plans to meet this week to work on their presentation to the union, she said.

"Each team presents what they would like to see happen. Basically, our team is talking about what we want to bring to the table," Ziehm said.

Jim Durkin, communications director for the AFSCME Council 93, which includes the Nashua custodial union, said it's not clear when the case may reach the court. AFSCME is an acronym for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

"We don't have a sense of what the timeline is yet. We believe the school board should give a lot of consideration to the financial resources involved in going to the (state) Supreme Court," Durkin said in a Wednesday phone interview.

In an Aug. 8 Board of Education meeting, Ziehm said the school district's attorney, Tom Closson, agreed to represent the district for $10,000.

"I think it's important for us to acknowledge that he does a great job, and that he does it for the least dollar that he possibly can," she said at the meeting.

At the same meeting, school board member Robert Hallowell said the board should pursue the case to the state Supreme Court as the PELRB ruling had set a new precedent for privatization decisions.

"The ruling basically sets a precedent for every other district, and every other city, and every other town in the state of New Hampshire ... that once you get a union, you can never privatize. So that's why I feel we have to push it to the Supreme Court," Hallowell said.

Speaking Wednesday, Durkin said the PELRB denial for a rehearing was to be expected.

"We're obviously pleased with the denial, but we're not surprised by it," he said. "The (labor) board did a thorough and thoughtful approach the first time."

Durkin said the decision was another piece of "good news" for custodians, and he cited an outside arbitrator's Sept. 8 opinion that echoed the initial PELRB ruling. The arbitrator, Nancy Peace, wrote that the district violated its contract with the union "when it refused to negotiate with the union over a successor agreement that covered the custodians as well as the maintenance positions."

Steve Lyons, North Shore coordinator for AFSCME Council 93, addressed the arbitrator's decision at the last Board of Education meeting Sept. 12, and requested the board halt their appeal.

"I would ask you to reconsider your vote to appeal the decision of the PLRB to the Supreme Court," he said.

The next Board of Education meeting is 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 26, at the Nashua High School North boardroom.

Tina Forbes can be reached at 594-6402, tforbes@nashuatelegraph.com or @Telegraph_ TinaF.