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RSU 1 teachers protest failure to reach labor accord

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RSU 1 teachers protest failure to reach labor accord

ARROWSIC — Approximately 60 Regional School Unit 1 teachers packed a School Board meeting Monday evening to draw attention to their lack of a labor contract.

Members of the Sagadahoc Education Preservation Association rallied outside Arrowsic Town Hall while the RSU 1 board discussed a support staff contract in executive session. When the doors were opened before 6 p.m. to admit the public, the union members stood silently, but made their sentiments about their own contract known with bright, yellow signs that said things like "RSU 1 teachers want what's fair, not what's left."

David Cowie, a sixth-grade teacher at Bath Middle School who has taught in Bath for two decades and is president of the union, was among the protesters.

"We are now into our 10th week – 2 1/2 months – without a contract," Cowie said prior to the meeting, "and this is a show of solidarity and silent protest to present to the School Board, to let them know that we are working without a contract, and we would appreciate that the matter be settled in an equitable and timely way."

Cowie said the previous contract expired Sept. 1. Negotiations have gone on for nearly a year between the union and the RSU 1 board, he said, with compensation at the center of the disagreement.

"Under closer examination, the offer that was made to us (on Sept. 1) had us making less money than we have been making, and it also reduced our health benefits," he explained.

The board's contract proposal went to the rank and file without an endorsement from the union negotiating team, and the membership rejected it almost unanimously on Sept. 1, Cowie said.

Negotiations have continued, but a contract proposal presented last Thursday left Cowie and other union leaders frustrated.

"(The proposal) has stripped our contract of language that has worked for teachers, administrators and kids for 20 years," he said.

According to Cowie, the offer takes away teachers' guaranteed preparation time, used for organizing lessons, and it eliminates compensation time for conferences, as well as hourly compensation for areas like curriculum work.

"The most damaging contract change that they're proposing is that the start and stop time of each day would be determined by the building principal," Cowie said. "That there would be no fixed beginning or ending time (district-wide) ... there needs to be definition in that workday."

Cowie said in an e-mail on Monday that the union members have been denied any cost-of-living or step increases in salary due to the unsettled contract, and that they have been "threatened by the administration with not getting pay increases retroactive to the expiration of the previous contract if the contract is not settled by Dec. 21."

With the past contract having expired Aug. 31, RSU 1 Superintendent William Shuttleworth said, "there's no presumption that there would be a pay raise until the contract got settled."

RSU 1 board Chairman Charles Durfee said on Tuesday that "the overall thrust of our contract proposal is to really put teachers on what I would call a professional basis, where they are paid to get a certain job done, and there aren't a lot of either limitations or guarantees for certain aspects of that job, such as prep time or comp time for administrative meetings, things like that."

Near the start of Monday's regular meeting, Durfee addressed the teachers and called them "crucial, and an important part of the educational process."

None of the board members "come here with an agenda, prejudiced thinking against you or your good work," he added. "Indeed, our mission is to promote and sustain the best educational system that is humanly possible, and that includes serving our skilled and dedicated teaching staff."

Durfee said these are trying times for many people, with unemployment at its highest in more than 20 years, state revenue in free fall and funding for education shrinking.

The school district is facing a potential reduction in state aid of at least $500,000, which Shuttleworth said last month would likely require staff cuts, since personnel accounts for 80 percent of the RSU budget. On Tuesday, though, he said he had found enough money in other areas – such as staff development and unfilled positions – to cover the loss without cutting staff.

"We think we might be able to squeeze it out (without cutting jobs)," Shuttleworth said. "It's going to be a tight squeeze."

Durfee said multiple labor contracts had been brought together into one document covering the communities in the creation of RSU 1, and each contract had its own wage and benefit scale, making the creation of this first combined contract more difficult.

"Not only is the pay scale substantially different, (but also) every article having to do with sick pay, personal days," Shuttleworth said. "So if we use this language in (a previous) contract, and don't put it in (the new contract), people say ‘well, I wanted that.'"

"It is in this environment that we are negotiating," Durfee told the teachers and their supporters. "So in this time of negotiations, we ask that you remain fair and honest in your statements and slogans ... and we trust that you will not attempt to gain advantage from telling only part of the story, if you choose to do so. Likewise, this board is and will be committed to being honest, open and fair as we go forward."

Katherine Ewing of Bath, who taught in the city for 18 years before retiring, said "the contract is not broken, so why are we trying to fix it?"

She criticized what she called "an imbalance of power" in the document, with too much weight being given to the administration. Years ago, she said, "teachers had to work hard to bring a balance, and have their needs met, hence the reason unions were formed. Prep times, comp time, sick leave, hours set for their arrival and departure time, were just some of the ways to balance the scales to make sure everyone was on an equal footing."

Ewing noted that teachers have significant training, work closely with children and know what works best in educating those students.

"Unfortunately our system has set up a hierarchy that puts teachers at the bottom," she said, "although we tout education and how much we care about children and want them to have the best teachers."

Shuttleworth said he expects a new contract – which along with teachers covers nurses, social workers, librarians and guidance counselors – to run for three years. The RSU 1 board unanimously approved the separate support staff contract on Monday.

"I think any time that teachers negotiate a contract, it's filled with a lot of passion and emotion," Shuttleworth said on Tuesday. "Probably the same type of commitment and passion they have in the classroom is what brought them (to the meeting) last night, too."

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.