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The Cheshire Education Association, which represents more than 400 educators in the district, stated last week that negotiations between itself and the Town of Cheshire have been put on hold, after an offer of what has been called a “zero-interest loan” was turned down by Town officials.
According to Judy Masella, vice president of the local union, representatives offered the Town three promissory days – days that teachers would work for free this year – with the expectation that teachers would be paid back in five years, without interest. The offer, which would have resulted in approximately $461,000 in savings for this budget year, never went any further than back room discussions between the union, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Greg Florio, Board of Education Chairman Gerald Brittingham, and Town Council Chairman Tim Slocum, Masella said.
"The teachers were looking for a way to help out, but (Town officials) wanted us to reopen the contract," Masella explained last week. "The entire thing was just dismissed and no further discussion took place. They said it was not what they were looking for."
Slocum said that more than a year ago, before he even became Council chairman, he was part of the discussions with the union about reworking its current contract, which includes an average salary increase of 4.4 percent for teachers. At that time, there were no offers made, just a discussion on the current economic situation and a verbal agreement between both parties that they would confer again.
"Their original offer was for a few thousand dollars and we wanted something more conclusive than that," Slocum said, in regards to the promissory days offer. "We wanted a shared sacrifice."
Slocum stated that the Town's financial problems look to get even worse next year, when the stimulus money runs out and the Town is still forced to deal with increased salaries and insurance costs.
Slocum charged that, while the teachers’ offer "had the flavor" of a furlough day, in which an employee is not paid, it would have included the mandatory payback requirement.
"That just wasn't going to work. We couldn't burden future Boards and Councils with that," Slocum said. "With all due respect to the union, I felt they gave a genuine effort, I just don't think they dug deep enough into their pockets."
According to Masella, the teachers were "very disheartened and shocked" that the offer was rejected outright. She said the idea of promissory days came about after discussions with the Connecticut Education Association and, even though not every teacher agreed with the idea, "most of the teachers" were on board.
"We were willing to help out, but most teachers didn't want the whole (contract) renegotiated again," Masella said. "We were shocked that the offer about giving up pay and not being paid back for five years without interest was dismissed. We were shocked that they left so much money on the table."
Slocum responded by saying "the effort on their part is laudable, but it isn't sellable."
Brittingham echoed those sentiments earlier this week and stated that, in fact, there had been a counteroffer on the table, which the union did not find favorable. The offer, according to Brittingham, was to spread out one year's increase over the next two years, and remove the final year's increase, an offer that was rejected.
"Their offer was predicated on deferments. There are no deferments. They can't contribute and it's ludicrous," Brittingham said. "We need their help and deferments are not concessions. Deferments are not realistic. I am still hopeful that reality will dawn on the union's leadership."
In February, the Board voted to cut $950,000 off of Florio's recommended budget, which called for a 3.86 percent increase in spending. Union President Beverly Jurkiewicz said that, based on "past history," the Town Council could be expected to cut the education budget even further. She admitted that, after the offer from the teachers was rejected, "it's a tougher sell now" to union members and, if further cuts are made, additional staff reductions could result.
"The teachers weren't even given a chance to tweak (the offer) a little bit," Jurkiewicz said. "That wasn't an option."
From the start, Jurkiewicz said that the teachers were willing "to do certain things" but reiterated Massela's point that opening up the contract was never an option. The union's legal counsel advised against opening the contract and she said they intend to "follow that advice." For now, Jurkiewicz said the teachers would "wait and see" what the Council does to the budget.
"We are willing to help out and look into Health Savings Accounts for employees," she said. "I don't think anything is too late, but we're not ready to discuss anything more right now."
Masella, who has a business background, commented that, in her experience, negotiations take place between two parties who agree to talk about different proposals, and that one side usually "does not dismiss" what the other party has offered and "refuse to look at it." She believes that way of thinking doesn't solve any problems, and the recent actions by some Town representatives have lead her to believe that there could be some ulterior motives at play.
"It makes me wonder if there really is a problem, or is that what some people really want? Do they just want to slam unions and the teacher's union in general and try to take out their political viewpoints on the local schools?" Masella questioned. "I believe that people are being belligerent based on their politics and not being rational."
However, Slocum stated his belief that the promissory days was the teachers’ “best offer,” and that he was led to believe that another offer was out of the question.
He remarked that “unfortunately” the union's unwillingness to dig a little bit deeper could affect its membership.
He said the argument that the students will suffer as a result of Council action is a "hollow argument" and the fact is, "it's a different reality now."
"I didn't tell them what to do, that's not my place, but I don't think it was a sacrifice at all," Slocum said. "The fact is, it was a bad contract. I knew it then and I know it now and, unfortunately, their membership will suffer."