Arbitrator sides with Merrimack district in spat with union over layoff procedures
MERRIMACK – Despite opposition from Merrimack educators, a new School District policy to consider teachers’ education level in addition to seniority when issuing layoffs will stand after an arbitrator’s ruling.
The independent arbitrator, hired to review the Merrimack teachers union’s complaint over the policy, has sided with the School District over the rule, which the School Board implemented in February in response to a new state mandate.
The law, implemented last summer, requires school administrators to consider factors other than seniority alone in their layoff practices. Merrimack school officials say neither the law, the district’s policy or the arbitrator’s decision will have much of an impact this year.
Teacher retirements and resignations have left only three layoffs across the district this year, according to Superintendent Marge Chiafery.
Over the long term, Merrimack teachers fear the new policy could leave some of the district’s most veteran teachers at risk.
“It makes a lot of people really nervous,” Michael Cirelli, president of the Merrimack Teacher’s Association, said Wednesday.
“If, in the future, enrollment is dropping and we’re going to see (more layoffs), a lot of teachers will have to go out and start getting masters credits,” he said. “It’s going to be expensive for them to do that.”
The School Board is set to take up the matter at its meeting Monday night.
In response to the new state law, the School Board voted in February to adopt the new policy.
“We couldn’t just be in violation of the law. That’s not a good place to be,” Jody Vaillancourt, the School Board’s chairwoman, said at the time.
The union objected and filed a grievance, contending the policy violates the existing collective bargaining agreement, which is based on seniority alone.
The union, which declined to meet with the School Board over the matter, further argued that the district’s existing policy met the state’s requirements because it considered vacant teacher positions for elimination before moving onto seniority.
Arbitrator Bruce Fraser, from Scituate, Mass., disagreed, denying the union’s grievance and siding with the School Board.
“With the passage of (the state law), the Board was forced to make a decision: either to make no change in the layoff language and violate the law; or to change the language to conform with it,” Fraser wrote in the decision. “Given that (board policy) was in violation of the law and given the Association declined to bargain with the Board over a lawful revision, I find the Board did not violate the Agreement.”
Entering the year, administrators initially planned for eight teacher layoffs. But the retirements and resignations have left only three teachers thus far on the chopping black, and with four months remaining to the start of the next school, administrators are hopeful those final three will return, as well.
“Right now, we have three people on recall list,” Chiafery said Wednesday. “To be able to say that before April vacation is pretty amazing.”
Still, with the policy now secured, union officials fear it will have a deeper effect over the years to come.
The union and the district will take up the matter once again later this year when they sit down to negotiate the district’s next teachers contract. The current pact is set to expire June 30, 2013.
“I’m hopeful we’ll be able to work something out that is good for everybody,” said Chiafery, who would like to move the district to more of a performance-based system.
“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us,” added Cirelli, the union president. “In the end, it’s these hard-working teachers that get put in the middle of something (at the state level), and we really just want to do a good job for the kids.”
Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or firstname.lastname@example.org.