Union talks with Marlboro schools fall apart
Negotiations between representatives of the Marlboro Teachers Association [MFA] and the school district fell apart last Friday night after marathon discussions failed to produce an agreement acceptable to both sides.
School Superintendent Ray Castellani followed this up by sending a letter to each teacher, highlighting the fiscal crisis that has engulfed the district in recent months.
Castellani offered a little recent history: Dynegy’s taxes of $17.2 million paid for 40 percent of the school budget; the auction of the Danskammer and Roseton plants were sold for approximately 2.5 percent of their current value, with the sale agreement for the plants calling for a 50 percent reduction in their assessments. These factors may lead to a nearly $11 million shortfall to the school district’s finances.
To make matters worse, Castellani wrote that state aid to Marlboro is being reduced by $850,000 in the coming 2013-14 school year while the district is being forced to pay an unanticipated $1.1 million increase [40 percent] in its retirement contributions for all employees.
“All these factors will unfortunately lead to a greater tax burden for the resident taxpayer,” he stated.
So far the district has implemented steps to address some of the current fiscal problems: the closing of the Milton and Middle Hope Elementary schools in late June; reducing staff in the Central Office Administration, the building level administration and in the teaching and support staff, resulting in the elimination of 70 positions. These actions will result in a savings of approximately $5 million.
The district is also considering allocating $2 million from the reserve fund to help offset the tax burden.
Under the terms of the current contract with the MFA, Castellani noted that the district is already obligated to a wage increase of 4.25 percent – inclusive of step – in each of the next 2 years. Within that contract, both parties agreed to a “re-opener clause in the event of an unforeseen economic hardship for the district.” This district triggered this provision, which led to regular meetings of both sides to discuss cost cutting measures.
The district’s initial request for a 10 percent reduction in salary was rejected by the MFA as was a freeze in salaries at the 2012-13 rates for the next 2 years. Both parties then agreed to the appointment of a mediator, Richard Curreri, a former Public Employment Relations Board director of conciliation, with 30 years of experience.
Two sessions were held with Curreri, however Castellani indicated that that negotiations came to a “screeching halt” on Friday.
“The parties had resolved most issues, but when the union conditioned their offer on a guaranteed 2 percent raise plus step (which is approximately another 2 percent totaling approximately 4 percent) in the 2016-17 school year, and a potential 2 percent raise plus step (totaling approximately 4 percent) in the 2017-18 school year, talks fell apart,” Castellani wrote.
Castellani acknowledged that the union’s offer generated considerable cash flow savings for the district by deferring raises guaranteed in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years to the end of those years and guaranteed step increases to the middle of those school years. He said the district appreciated this, however “the offer did little, if anything, to provide long-term relief. It was an offer to ‘kick the can’ down the road and would have created an even bigger hole in the 2016-17 school year and beyond.” He also noted that he does not expect the bankruptcy/auction issues surrounding the power plants “to improve anytime in the near future” and that once the district’s reserves are depleted “the situation will be even worse.”
Castellani said the district then proposed what it considered a fair compromise: have a mutually agreed upon arbitrator decide the raises for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years, with the parameter of a wage increase of no less than 0.5 percent plus step and no greater than 1.25 percent plus step. In making a decision the arbitrator would consider the financial climate at that time and both parties would have the opportunity to advocate for their position.
The superintendent stated that the MFA rejected arbitration for the 2016-17 school year and would only consider arbitration for the 2017-18 school year if the arbitrator’s ceiling was 2 percent. Castellani said the district has been “struggling” with any contract extensions, given the uncertain economic times “let alone one that provided essentially for a guaranteed raise of 4 percent (the 2 percent across the board increase and the 2 percent step increase) in 2016-17 and possibly in 2017-18.
Castellani said they have not scheduled any more sessions with the MFA, adding that the district has made an offer “that is as far as they are willing to go, and that offer was rejected.” He said the district will continue to work to figure out how to close the gap that was created by the Dynegy bankruptcy/auction. He stated that without MFA concessions this will “mean further cuts to the district’s educational program and staffing levels.”
In a subsequent interview, Castellani said the district tried to impress upon the MFA that they are not in a negotiation mode but in a crisis situation. He said he believes the MFA understands this but because there are 2 more years left in the contracts, he thinks there is not the same sense of urgency on their part.
Castellani said his letter to the teachers is not meant to be adversarial in nature.
“It is trying to let teachers know that this is the process that we were in. It’s my hope that they can understand the district’s reasoning for turning down the offer by the union and what the district’s position was in regard to the offers that we were trying to get in savings that we could not take a deferment. We needed true savings throughout the contract,” he said.
By Mark Reynolds