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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Hollis teachers contract among those in dispute

When it comes to contract negotiations, it isn’t always about the money.

In Hollis, teachers and School Board members have been locked in a contract dispute for more than a year. At the heart of it are proposed major reforms, including the creation of a merit pay system for teachers, as well as effectively doing away with tenure for veteran educators.

While Hollis teachers union representatives claim neither proposal is in the best interest of their members or the students, Bill Beauregard, chairman of the Hollis School Board, argues rewarding teachers for their job performance will only result in the quality of education improving.

The board’s proposal would require teachers to attain certain ratings on their annual evaluations before getting a raise. The evaluations are done by principals and are based in part on classroom observations. Currently, teachers are paid based on their years of experience and their level of degree attainment.

The Hollis board is also seeking to do away with the practice of requiring the most recent teachers hired to be the first ones laid off when there is a reduction in staff.

“Having a completely merit-based reduction-in-force policy is important, but it’s important for the right reasons,” Beauregard said. “It’s ensuring that we’re keeping the best teachers.”

While the issues in Hollis are somewhat unique, it’s among several teacher labor agreements in the area that have reached a stalemate. As state and local coffers shrink, labor negotiators and school officials are often finding themselves further apart than usual at the bargaining table.

In Nashua, the teachers union has already declared an impasse in negotiations, since the school budget proposal doesn’t contain enough money to support step increases for teachers next year. Mayor Donnalee Lozeau wants teachers to accept a one-year contract with no raises.

No chance, said members of the Nashua Teachers’ Union bargaining team.

In area school districts, teachers have been asked to take no pay increases, or modest wage increases along with increased health insurance costs, making teacher paychecks equal to what they were the year before, or in some cases, a little less.

The Hollis teachers contract expired in 2009, and the two sides have tried twice to come to an agreement, but both times, mediation failed and talks broke down. Teachers are working without a new contract this year, and unless the two sides can come together on a deal soon, that will be the case again next year.

Sandy Van Sciver, the Hollis teachers’ lead negotiator, called the proposals “far-reaching and not completely planned out.” While teachers are open to having their pay based on performance, the decision shouldn’t be based entirely on an evaluation conducted by administrators, she said. The union was told the proposal wasn’t negotiable, she said.

“It was take it or leave it,” she said.

Teachers in Brookline already know they’ll be working without a new contract next year after the union and School Board couldn’t reach a new deal. The Brookline teachers contract expires this summer.

Brookline School Board President David Partridge said negotiators went in looking to reach a deal that was fair for teachers, but also lessened the financial burden on taxpayers. One of the sticking points, he said, was coming to an agreement on changes to health care.

“We’re not trying to cut their benefits,” Partridge said. “We’re trying to move to a program that is cheaper for them and for us. The overall cost of health care is ridiculous. It’s unsustainable.”

Nicole Bedard, a first-grade teacher who is the head negotiator for the Brookline Teachers Association, said given the state of the economy, the union’s expectations going into negotiations were pretty low in terms of a salary increase. But what Bedard said was proposed by the School Board was actually a backslide. Teacher salaries would have gone down over the life of the contract, she said.

“For us, every area they covered, they wanted to take away this, they wanted to take away that. They wanted to take away a lot of things,” she said. “They said this is not sustainable, but yet, they were willing to throw money at professional development.

“We really weren’t sure where the justification for that came from.”

Two years ago, Brookline teachers agreed to give up their raises for a year to save positions, saving the town $100,000. Bedard said the School Board has argued teachers made up those raises in later years.

“In reality, we didn’t,” she said. “We lost that whole year’s increase.”

In Nashua, the teachers union declared an impasse in negotiations last month after Superintendent Mark Conrad put forward a budget proposal that wouldn’t be able to support step increases for teachers next year. The Nashua Teachers’ Union contract expires this summer.

Not everything is bleak, however. In Merrimack, the School Board and union were able to come up with an agreement, which will go before voters April 12. The deliberative session is March 7.

Merrimack School Board Chairman Jody Vaillancourt said the two-year contract, if approved, would actually save money for the town next year through health care concessions agreed upon by the teachers. If voted down, teachers’ wages would freeze, but health care costs to the town would increase $440,000.

“I was really pleased with the negotiation process,” Vaillancourt said. “The teachers union was very receptive to the notion that people need them to commit to more health care concessions, and they were agreeable to that.”

As far as implementing reforms such as what’s being considered in Brookline, Vaillancourt said those were discussed, but it was felt changes of that magnitude needed more preparation and planning.

Teachers in Amherst, where the contract expired last year, had reached an impasse in negotiations in December, but reached a deal early this year. That two-year proposal will go before voters March 8.

In other local communities, teachers are under contract for next year and beyond. Litchfield’s contract expires in 2012. In Hudson and Milford, teachers contracts extend into 2013.

In Hollis, getting a deal in place for next year hasn’t been ruled out. There is a petition to allow for a special district meeting, should a contract agreement be reached through fact-finding. But that will require voters to approve the special meeting on March 14.

Meanwhile, there remains the fundamental disagreement over the School Board’s proposals. Under the merit pay system, teachers would have to earn certain rankings on their evaluations to get a step increase. Teachers who achieve distinction rankings would get a $1,000 bonus.

The union argues the evaluation system used in the district, referred to as the Charlotte Danielson model, wasn’t meant to be used this way. They even reached out to Danielson, who agreed with the teachers.

Van Sciver argued it puts too much power in the hands of principals, whereas a model using several measures, such as peer reviews or student performance, would be more fair.

She added there is already language in the contract allowing the principal to withhold a step increase if a teacher isn’t performing.

Beauregard said the evaluation model has been used in the district for several years and would be a fair way of deciding who should be getting raises. He didn’t see a problem with basing raises on evaluations done by principals.

“The teachers work for the principal,” he said.

Beauregard said getting rid of the requirement that the least experienced teachers be laid off first is also critical. Under the board’s proposal, which teachers get laid off would instead be determined by previous job performance and evaluations.

While the union argues that could make more veteran teachers with higher salaries a target in budget cuts, Beauregard said it’s the only way to ensure that the best teachers are in front of the students.

“The current policy treats new teachers like second-class citizens,” he said. “This lets us make sure we’re keeping and maintaining our top staff.”

Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or mbrindley@nashuatelegraph.com.