November 2, 2014

MSAD 15 at odds over teachers' contracts and bond issues - By Tracy Scheckel

At the October 15 meeting of the MSAD 15 School Board, chair Tina Martell read a statement onto the record which perplexed many in the audience. The statement was addressed to “Teachers and Community Members” and discussed “inaccuracies contained in a letter purportedly from the Gray-New Gloucester Teachers’ Association” that was circulated in the community and via social media. The statement read by Martell discussed various aspects of the current teacher negotiations as well as the board’s goals and vision for the district.
After hearing the statement, we tracked down the letter that was alleged to come from the Teachers Association. It is important to note that this letter contained no teacher names and simply read, “Sincerely, The Gray-New Gloucester Teachers' Association”. The letter stated that the district, ‘in an unusual move”, hired an attorney to represent its interests during negotiation and that the attorney advised the board to proceed to “costly fact-finding”. The letter also claimed that “Salaries, benefits, working conditions and teacher planning time will be greatly diminished by the school board's proposal.” 

It also states that the district is seeking to reduce insurance benefits, and that the district continues to lose teachers for higher paying positions in other districts. Referring to the two referendum questions to be considered on Election Day, the letter states that “The bonds will have a severe annual impact upon tax rates in the next few years and will fundamentally not improve education for every student.”

The statement read by Martell, noted, “While the board firmly believes that contract negotiations should be conducted in executive session, it is important that both teachers and community members not be misled by incorrect or inflammatory statements.” It further explained that, “Our goal in current contract negotiations is to be fair to all employees, but we cannot accept the status quo. We face many difficult challenges at the local level and are seeking to make improvements which we believe are necessary to bring our district forward.” She cited a 22 percent increase in healthcare costs, and a loss of revenue to charter school tuition among the district’s financial challenges. The one item that both the district and the association seemed to agree on was pay for new teachers – albeit for different reasons.

The district’s statement explained that “The current starting salary in MSAD 15 is lower than many of the neighboring school districts and disproportionally benefits those who are on top of the salary scale to the harm of our newer teachers. As a result, the board has proposed to invest approximately $419,000 of additional money into the salary scale to create a uniform salary scale which treats all teachers equitably. This represents an aggregate salary increase of more than five percent over the previous year. Our proposal, however, does not take away anything from teachers and only seeks to correct current inequities.”

Regarding the health insurance inequities contended by the teachers, Martell explained that, “Currently, the board pays 78 percent toward the plan that a teacher chooses. Family coverage costs $24,351, while single coverage costs $8,863. The Board is proposing to increase coverage for a single teacher and teacher with child but is asking that those who elect family and spousal coverage pay a little more. Our proposal means an increase to board contributions of approximately $80,000. In addition, we are asking that, if a teacher's spouse has health insurance through an employer elsewhere, the spouse take insurance with his or her employer rather than through the School.” 

The last item addressed in the statement was in reference to in-class teaching time at the high school. GNG HS uses block scheduling which means that there are four 80-minute periods daily. Currently the teachers are required to teach five of those eight sessions in a 2-day period, and appear to have 240 minutes of prep time in that time frame. The district is proposing that the teachers teach more than five of the eight periods, which according to the statement would, allow the district “to offer our students more than 20 additional classes each semester as well as smaller class size and have fewer students in study hall.” 

In closing, Martell continued, “We value our teachers and all the work they do for our students, but we will not condone tactics which seek to mislead our staff and the public or attempt to undermine the upcoming Bond referendum vote on November 4th because the teacher contract is not settled. There is absolutely no connection between the Bond issue and teacher negotiation. We strongly urge the Teachers Association to return to the bargaining table so that we can discuss our differences and work collaboratively to the benefit of our students.” 

The Windham Eagle contacted MSAD 15 Superintendent Bruce Beasley and Gray – New Gloucester teachers’ Association (GNGTA) President, Michelle Adler for comments regarding both the purported GNGTA letter and the district response statement.

Adler is also the association’s chief negotiator and stated that “Leadership of the Gray – New Gloucester Teachers’ Association -- including the negotiation team -- did not send the letter.” She did explain, “There is a crisis committee within the organization who is communicating with members, they may have put the document out but I can’t confirm that.” Adler emphasized the fact that teachers and negotiators do have the right to share negotiation information with association members. 

Adler, during our interview pointed out several elements in the district statement that she felt were inaccurate or misleading. She contended that the 22 percent increase in health care costs for the district that was cited by the district is, in actuality, 9.5 percent in this fiscal year. She also stated that for 25 years, teachers in the district have been paying a higher share of the total premium for healthcare than virtually all neighboring districts. 

In response to the block schedule at the high school, Adler said that there are not 240 minutes of prep time in a 2-day cycle. She explained that teachers get one full period of prep time per day and that during the additional 80 minute period in the 2-day cycle, teachers are assigned to other duties such as study hall and supervising students.

Adler contends that the district statement regarding aggregate salary increases in excess of five percent is misleading because, “Teacher salaries are based on experience. Under the proposed contract, those with 16 or more years are only being offered 1.3 percent increase over a 3-year period, while teachers in the five to seven year experience range could see increases of between 15 percent to 17 percent in the same 3-year period. 

In closing, Adler said, “We know that the parents in the community support us, and it’s sad that the school board doesn’t. The lack of support from the board has impacted teacher morale and has made it difficult to work so hard to help students succeed and help them plan for their future.” She concluded by saying, “You can’t say you support students when you don’t support teachers.”

MSAD 15 board chair Tina Martell responded to an inquiry to the superintendent, Bruce Beasley, with the following statement; “Although there is not yet a contract settlement with our teachers, this does not mean that the board is unwilling to invest in or support our teaching staff. In this regard, the board will continue to work diligently towards a contract settlement that is fair to all constituents.”

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