School District Working With Unions Through Closures
Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue offered union and contracted services updates with the Board of Education at its March 26 special meeting.
The superintendent also shared an update on the school district’s distance learning program at the meeting, which is covered in a separate article in this week’s print edition of the paper.
While updating the board on recent communications with district bargaining units, Dr Rodrigue said the district reached out to speak with each union, “just as a commitment that we are honoring our contracts with the unions and vice versa.”
“The common theme in all…is closure related,” Dr Rodrigue said of the memorandum for understandings presented to the school board members for the meeting.
Most of the board members in “attendance” for the special meeting were available via video communication and a call-in option was available for members of the public to offer comments. No members of the public offered comments. As evident from a video of the meeting, people who were present for the meeting, which was held at Newtown Municipal Center, sat with distance between them.
Dr Rodrigue said some of the documents request union members track their hours while others do not, depending on the type of work being completed. “The key” was to make sure each group could work remotely.
“We wanted to make sure, two things...one is that we had a good faith understanding with all the unions, [and] the second thing is we wanted to keep everyone safe,” Dr Rodrigue said.
Board of Education Secretary Dan Cruson, Jr, offered his gratitude that each bargaining group was willing to support the district, and board member Deborra Zukowski said she appreciates the district’s effort to protect its staff and teachers.
Later in the meeting, Dr Rodrigue said that with students now learning at home due to COVID-19, transportation has been an area of focus for superintendents around the state. Newtown’s main transportation contract is with All-Star Transportation and it has another contract with EdAdvance for out of district special education transportation.
“Every district has different elements in their transportation contracts, certainly different bus companies,” Dr Rodrigue said.
According to discussion at the special meeting, district Business Director Ron Bienkowski spoke with All-Star Transportation regarding paying bus drivers and possible transportation savings while school is not in session in school buildings.
Dr Rodrigue said that just as the district does not know what the “full impact” of the current situation will be on the district, it is also unknown what the impact will be on transportation companies.
“I felt it was very important that we look at negotiating with All-Star a way to pay the bus drivers, but also to realize savings beyond that,” said Dr Rodrigue.
There are 54 buses in Newtown’s All-Star Transportation fleet and the cost per day for each bus is $150, according to the meeting’s discussion. If school returns for April 20, which was possible as of the date of the special meeting, there would be 17 school days of non-bus days, and if school does not reopen in school buildings by the end of the school year there would be 58 non-bus days in the school year.
Dr Rodrigue said the current understanding with All-Star Transportation is that the district will pay the bus drivers and will negotiate potential savings for the district at a later time. Areas for potential savings include the cost for fuel and covering transportation for field trips and sporting events, which are not occurring.
Board of Education Vice Chair Dan Delia expressed his gratitude that All-Star Transportation was willing to work with the district through the negotiations, and member Rebekah Harriman-Stites said she is “thrilled” the bus drivers will be paid.
“I really believe that allowing people the flexibility to stay home and stay safe is important and paying them is the first step in doing that,” Harriman-Stites said.
Regarding the district’s contract with EdAdvance, Dr Rodrigue said some students are still being transported to out of district private facilities. Bienkowski said EdAdvance is paying its drivers, and the district was given the option to pay for the full year’s contract this year, with potential savings credited to the district next year, or it could pay 50 percent of its contract this year to cover the cost for the bus drivers. He recommended paying the contract in full this year.
The school board also discussed contract updates with the district’s food service provider, Whitsons Culinary Group.
With students not in the school buildings, the normal food service program, which is self-sufficient, is not being provided. Instead, the district began on March 18 having Whitsons Culinary Group provide boxed lunches for families who qualify for free or reduced lunches and those feeling extra pressure during the current situation.
According to Bienkowski, the cost for the current food service program is expected to be approximately $66,000, and Dr Rodrigue later said it is unknown if federal funds will cover any of the cost.