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Teachers Never Voted On Union Contract Concession Issue



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Teachers Never Voted On Union Contract Concession Issue

By John Voket

Finance officials learned this week that it is unknown whether the rank and file teachers in Newtown may have been willing to negotiate on salary concessions or possible temporary wage freezes since they were preempted from voting on the matter by their union executive board, which rejected the idea.

The news came well over two hours into Board of Finance discussion about the municipal-side budget proposal Wednesday evening. As the finance board sifted through various line items looking for additional taxpayer savings, one thing was becoming evident: the only way elected officials can present a no-tax-increase budget is with across the board wage concessions from all the town’s unions.

But when asked about the prospect, First Selectman Joe Borst reiterated to the finance board the message he has been hearing from local union leaders: “If they don’t go, nobody will go.” Mr Borst was referring to a consensus that it would either be all the town’s unions coming to the table and discuss wage concessions, or none would participate.

While several indirect mentions of the town’s largest union — representing school teachers — had been made earlier in the evening, finance board Vice Chair James Gaston asked Mr Borst pointedly about the issue in the final few minutes of the meeting.

“It’s my understanding that all town unions, and on the Board of Education’s side, the administrators’ union, all agreed to open their contracts and negotiate. And the only union I am familiar with is the teachers’ union that has refused,” Mr Gaston said. “Is my knowledge correct?”

Mr Borst replied: “That’s the last I heard — they refused.” He added that the teachers agreed to go along with furlough concessions.

Finance board Chair John Kortze then directed a request for clarification directly from school board member Katherine Fetchick who was in attendance. When asked specifically, Ms Fetchick told the board that all unions except the teachers unit agreed on certain concessions, but that she understood the teachers were willing to participate in townwide wage negotiations.

“As far as the teachers’ union, it was the executive committee that decided not to have any concessions, but they are getting furloughed six days,” Ms Fetchick said.

Mr Gaston then pointed out that the furlough days were already a previously negotiated and agreed upon element of the current teachers’ contract.

“When you say it’s a concession on their part, it’s actually in the contract, and the administration is entitled to exercise it in their contract?” Mr Gaston asked.

“Right, it’s not a concession,” Ms Fetchick confirmed.

“So it’s the executive committee of the union has said they won’t open the contract, correct?” Mr Gaston countered.

“The teachers did not vote to do that,” Ms Fetchick said.

Mr Gaston then asked to clarify the difference in savings to taxpayers between the furlough program and a wage freeze. Ms Fetchick replied that the wage freeze would reduce the salary line of the budget by 4.9 percent versus the three percent savings or almost $1 million, realized through the furloughs.

During questioning, town Finance Director Robert Tait estimated an additional $200,000 might be saved if the town side unions agreed to a 2009 wage freeze.

In other business, the finance board conducted an extensive discussion with town Pension Committee Chair Tom Murtha, and learned the pension fund’s consultant suggested the town hedge against existing and possible future fallout by making between a $400,000 and $1 million additional contribution to ensure the pensions account would remain fully funded in 2009.

The finance officials also heard from representatives of the Booth Library board, who appealed to keep the library’s budget line constant with 2008, to preserve existing services in the face of a recent explosion in new and renewed patronage.

Security services and other facility management duties at Fairfield Hills also came up, providing Police Chief Michael Kehoe a chance to discuss the ways in which his officers would supplement, but could not entirely replace, the level of security services being provided on the campus now by private contractors.

Mr Tait also said additional savings might be realized if responsibility for contracting mechanical and landscaping services was handled directly through the town, and not by a management contractor as it is currently being done.

Since the evening was slated for deliberation and discussion only, the finance board took no action during the proceedings. The second of up to five nights of finance board discussions on the school side of the budget continued Thursday, March 5, after the print edition of The Newtown Bee went to press.

For updates on this session, as well as finance board budget sessions scheduled for March 9, 11 and 12, go to newtownbee.com.

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