Warwick School Committee Chooses the Tough Path
Faced with an insurmountable $13 million cut in state and local funding, the Warwick School Committee voted to freeze pay and impose a 20% health care co-pay for all of its employees last night.
Before the vote, School Committee Chairman Chris Friel stressed that these are not actions the district wants to take but it has no choice faced with insufficient funding for its budget of about $161 million for the current fiscal year, which began July 1.
He said the district did not want to cut programs that directly affect students, such as sports, gifted classes, mentoring and all extracurricular activities.
Unions are not happy.
The action is in apparent violation of the School Department’s contract with its roughly 1,000 teachers represented by the Warwick Teachers Union, with teachers slated to lose a 2.75 percent raise this year….The leaders of the two unions that represent almost all school employees – the teachers union and the Warwick Independent School Employees union – vowed that they will respond with swift court action.
“I feel stabbed in the back,” teachers union president James Ginolfi said, noting that the first he and other union executives heard of the School Committee’s plan was less than an hour before it took action in executive session.
“We listened to what they had to say and said we’d get back to you,” Ginolfi said, adding that the school board is sending a public message that it has no regard for a legal agreement. “I am shocked,” he said.
The union has been playing the “we’d get back to you” game or the “we’re willing to listen” game for some time now. The School Committee is obligated to have its budget finalized shortly after the City Council approves the school budget and was already late in doing so. They couldn’t wait any longer. The situation called for urgency and the unions seemed to be content with playing the same collective bargaining games that worked in the past (see the “Addendum” in the extended post for a timeline). That isn’t working any more. It’s apparent that the Warwick School Committee felt like there wasn’t much expeditious movement occurring on the other side of the table and felt like the only path left open–a tough one–was to unilaterally make these cuts and changes. That’s something that the Warwick City Council backed away from. Whether the solution is viable depends on the next stop in the process: the courthouse.
Addendum – When I wrote that “The union has been playing the ‘we’d get back to you’ game or the ‘we’re willing to listen’ game for some time now” I was basing it on my recollection of the last few months. Here is what I’m talking about (thanks to the Warwick Beacon website):
February 16, 2010:
The school administration had not sought to initiate talks with the teachers as of Friday although better than a week ago School Committee Chairman Christopher Friel said he believes all municipal employees, including teachers, should share in pay reductions to balance the current budget.
“We are always willing to sit down. The door is always open,” Warwick Teachers Union President James Ginolfi said when asked of the possibility of union concessions without reopening the contact, as the mayor has achieved with municipal employees and firefighters.
With 87 percent of its budget in salaries, School Business Affairs Director Leonard Flood calls the situation “challenging.”
“We have to have movement in terms of the teachers contract,” he said.
School Committee Chairman Christopher Friel took a step in that direction last week. In a letter to Warwick Teachers Union President James Ginolfi he requests the union to reopen contract negotiations, although the current agreement doesn’t expire until August of 2011.
Ginolfi said yesterday he is always open to talks and that he will bring Friel’s request before the union board this week.
Meanwhile, Friel said that he’s approached Warwick Teachers’ Union President James Ginolfi about potential budget concessions.
“We’re beyond the point of cutting paper, supplies and technology. That’s not going to do us any good or result in substantial savings,” said Friel.
James Ginolfi, president of the Warwick Teachers Union, and Christopher Friel, chairman of the school committee, have met to talk about the possibility of reopening the teacher contract that expires in August 2011. Ginolfi said recently that it is difficult to talk about specifics until there is a clearer picture of the issues faced by the city. This depends heavily on levels of state and city funding as well as actions taken by legislators that could affect pension contributions, health care co-payments and mandates.
[Warwick Superintendent] Horoschak said schools have asked the union to reopen the contract following Mayor Scott Avedisian’s announcement that schools would shoulder about $6 million of the $10 million cut from the city’s state aid projections.
Teacher union president James Ginolfi said yesterday that he had received a letter some weeks ago about reopening the contract, but heard nothing until yesterday when Horoschak called.
“We’ve been waiting and waiting. There hasn’t been much talk; it’s been in their hands for a response,” Ginolfi said.
“I guess I have a problem that they tell you what they’re looking for and not me and they have had plenty of opportunities,” he added. He did not comment on Horoschak’s proposals, saying those discussions would have to take place at the bargaining table.
James Ginolfi, the president of the union, said he’s “always willing to sit down and talk.” No formal meeting has been set although Ginolfi said he expects to meet one-on-one with Friel this week.
The Warwick School Department has an $8.9 million budget hole, and with roughly 87 percent of its spending comprised of salaries and benefits, the department needs concessions from the Warwick Teachers Union in a big way.
But a decision by the school committee to consolidate department heads at the high school level irked the union, and talks between the school committee and the union were halted before they even began.
“We were more than willing to sit down and talk until they took that unilateral action. It’s like they want to talk right after they violate our contract,” said Ginolfi….Meanwhile, the school committee had scheduled a meeting with the union’s executive board last Tuesday. The purpose of the meeting was quite open-ended, Ginolfi said.
“He said that we were going to talk about everything. What does that mean? I wanted to set some parameters before we met,” said Ginolfi.
Ginolfi then notified the school committee that unless they rescinded their plans to eliminate department heads – there would be no meeting, at least so far as the union was concerned. No progress was made and neither side would budge. The school department wouldn’t rescind the notices and the union didn’t show up. Tuesday came and went without a meeting.
Warwick Teachers Union President James Ginolfi said that the union is willing to step forward.
“We’re willing to help in this situation, but we can’t be the whole solution given the amount of money that they’ve cut the school department,” said Ginolfi.
Ginolfi refused to get into specifics as to whether or not the teachers would be willing to pay more for their health insurance or other issues.
“The specifics are all subject to negotiation,” said Ginolfi.
“I don’t talk about anything with anyone until I talk to [administration] first.”
Ginolfi is always willing to talk–well, willing to talk about talking it seems. And even when they “talk” with the School Committee it’s really just talk about talking (negotiating), which is different. So, for example, even though Ginolfi met with Friel a couple times and they talked, they didn’t talk, you see? And then some other stuff happened with department heads which made Ginolfi not even want to talk about talking. Delay, delay, delay.