WARWICK, RI — When the contract impasse between the Warwick School Committee and the Warwick Teachers Union began in 2015, Superintendent Phil Thornton ended mediation that November in favor of non-binding arbitration, and teachers want the arbitrator’s ruling to stick.
Darlene Netcoh, president of Warwick Teachers Union, said they’re taking that position with no guarantee or confidence that they will win the better end of the neutral arbitrator’s rulings.
“We’re not certain at all, but we know that the arbitrator is going to be fair,” Netcoh said during the WTU’s second picket of City Hall calling for a speedy resolution to the contract dispute in as many months.
About 500 teachers, students, supporters and members of other unions, turned out to support the picketing, including Chris Buffery of Verizon workers union IBEW 2323.
The picket line got honks and waves from passing cars, including from a National Grid truck as it rolled past the line of picketers which stretched in a long loop down the block from City Hall to the corner of Post Road and Greenwich Avenue.
When asked via email if the School Committee is willing to make the arbitrator’s decision binding, Thornton did not reply. Instead, he sent a statement that the Warwick School Committee is negotiating in good faith.
Netcoh said that to ensure that arbitration would lead to a new contract, the Warwick Teachers’ Union proposed that the sides agree to make the neutral interest arbitrator’s decision binding in December 2015.
“However, the WSC refused this offer and have yet to respond to the WTU’s recently reiterated proposal. 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,” Netcoh said.
“With respect to the allegation of “frivolous court actions” made by the union leadership, the School Committee is disappointed that any Court action has been necessary. The School Committee would have preferred to have resolved these issues without Court intervention, however, the School Committee is compelled to negotiate on behalf of the citizens and taxpayers of Warwick,” Thornton said.
Netcoh said the talks about the contract have not discussed compensation since the union first reported Thornton’s offer of a raise of 0 percent in year one, 2 percent in year two and 2 percent in year three of a new contract.
Rather, Netcoh said, the talks have centered around their insistence on class size limits built into the previous contract over the course of several years of negotiations.
For instance, she said, the elimination of class weighting, a practice where special education students are counted as more than one student when determining class size. Now, some classes with 28 students have 15 with Individual Education Plans (IEPs) or 504’s, which would have required more teaching staff under the old contract, since the IEP students effectively make the class a 35-student room. So students are not receiving the kind of instruction they ought to have, Netcoh said.
School Committee member Karen Bachus was among the people picketing alongside the teachers. “I’m just here to support them,” Bachus said.
Bachus, who has been part of the contract talks, said each side needs to compromise to make a new agreement work, but doing that requires trust between the sides that’s in short supply. The School Committee could do much to repair that trust by taking the health concerns of parents for their children attending the schools with the gravity it deserves.
High carbon dioxide levels discovered in Warwick Veterans School, a mold problem recently found at Pilgrim High School, and at the library at John Brown Francis Elementary School, ailments which only affect students while they’re at certain schools are serious matters, she said, and seeing the rest of the School Committee acknowledge the concerns and act on them with some conviction would go a long way with the teachers, she said.
Also, Bachus said, her fellow School Committee members could be more flexible about the contract negotiations.
“We don’t have to break the union and hurt kids to get a fair contract,” Bachus said.
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