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UPDATE: Warwick School Committee OKs Mediated Teacher Contract, Union Rejects Deal

Tollgate High School, pictured in a file photo from August 2015.
Tollgate High School, pictured in a file photo from August 2015.

UPDATE – 3:07 p.m. July 12: Darlene Netcoh, president of the Warwick Teacher’s Union, said elements of the agreement, including class size and the assignment of special education teachers to classes with students who need extra support, still needs to be negotiated before they’ll accept the agreement.

Netcoh said in a statement today that the mediators sent a letter to the union and School Department suggesting further negotiation would likely take place on finances and other subject matters.

“Those ‘other subject matters’ to which Ragosta and Avedisian refer include, but are not limited to, language that governs class size and the assignment of special education teachers to classes with students who need extra support. The needs of students are of paramount importance to teachers, and this language needs to be finalized before the WTU Executive Board takes the advisory opinions of the mediators to the membership. The WTU stands ready to resume mediation/negotiations.”

While the mediation/negotiation process has been occurring, the union and School Department have also been engaged in statutory interest arbitration. That process was initiated by the school committee, Netcoh said.

“In contrast to the advisory opinions of the mediators, the interest arbitrator will issue an award that the WTU has offered to make binding as permitted under the law. However, the WSC has refused this offer. Every taxpayer in Warwick should wonder why the WSC would reject the neutral arbitrator’s decision, after they and the superintendent are the ones who chose this route and have spent a year and a half and close to a quarter of a million dollars on interest arbitration,”

WARWICK, RI  — The Warwick School Committee voted 4-1 Tuesday night to approve a teachers contract mediated by attorney Vincent F. Ragosta and Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, which now waits on the consideration of the Warwick Teacher’s Union.

Ragosta and Avedisian served as independent “judges” deciding on proposed changes to the expired collective bargaining agreement, approving some of the proposals of the teachers union and some of the proposals of the School Committee, according to a statement from the Warwick School Department.

The agreement, if ratified by the union, would provide teachers with three-percent pay raises each year in 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2019-20. Other issues mediated to compromise include evaluations, after school meetings, the filling of coaching positions by seniority, report card grading systems, sick days, common planning time, staff reductions, and class size.

Warwick School Committee member Karen Bachus, the lone dissenting vote, said in an interview that she would have preferred to continue negotiating the contract. She said the parties had begun to make progress on long-stalemated issues, but did not elaborate on those points.

In a statement released Wednesday, School Committee member David Testa said: “I am encouraged by the fact that both sides committed to a new approach that was suggested by the mediators to help work together towards a mutual agreement.

“And, in my view, this new approach worked. In my view, there was a good ‘back and forth’ between both parties. I truly thought the mediator’s award was fair from a policy perspective and generous from a financial perspective.

“I feel the mediators award presents the best opportunity to move this forward to get a deal done. Unfortunately, the WTU leadership does not agree. I am surprised and, perhaps, a bit disillusioned by the apparent basis upon which the award is being rejected by the union leadership.

In my view, our negotiating team had an obligation to bring this award before the entire School Committee for their approval or rejection. It is my fervent hope that the WTU negotiators will also share that same sense of obligation and consider the details of the mediator’s award with their membership.”

“Like any negotiation, one side get some things it wants and the other side gets some things it wants,” said Warwick Schools Superintendent Phil Thornton in a statement. “In reviewing the overall mediator’s award, I think this is fair and equitable, and more importantly, allows us to focus all of our attention on our mission – educating students.”

WTU President Darlene Netcoh could not be immediately reached for comment.

Background of the recent dispute

The most recent contract dispute began in 2015 with the expiration of the last contract and in the midst of former Supt. Richard D’Agostino’s decision to retire from the school department after 33 years.

Thornton, the former superintendent in Cumberland, took the Warwick position in early 2016 and  took what union leaders saw as an aggressive stance, accusing Thornton of spending money on lawyers and a PR firminstead of negotiating a new contract.

An initial attempt at mediation ended in May, 2016 with the school committee walking out of a meeting after they say union officials called for a 10-percent salary increase. Mediator Vincent Ragosta confirmed “those were the words that were spoken,” and said that without the union putting the proposal in writing, confusion resulted.

In the meantime, the National Labor Relations Board decided in the union’s favor on a grievance filed over the number of layoffs announced by the school committee. A later Superior Court judgment reversed the NLRB’s ruling, essentially killing the union’s chances to reverse the layoffs in court.

More recently, state Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson (D-Dist. 21) submitted a bill in the General Assembly (H-5583 Sub A) that would keep the terms of school and municipal contracts in place after they expire; more than a dozen mayors and town administrators called on Gov. Gina Raimondo to veto the measure, which had not been transmitted to her as of July 12, according to the Providence Journal.

The abrupt closure of the Assembly session by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello on June 30 left the so-called evergreen contract bill in limbo.

Rob Borkowski
Author: Rob Borkowski

Rob has worked as reporter and editor for several publications, including The Kent County Daily Times and Coventry Courier, before working for Gatehouse in MA then moving home with Patch Media. Now he's publisher and editor of Contact him at [email protected] with tips, press releases, advertising inquiries, and concerns.

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