FREEPORT — Regional School Unit 5 teachers, who have been working without a contract for a year, have decided it’s time to tell the community.
On June 8 – the night of the annual RSU 5 budget meeting – dozens of teachers stood at the corner of Main and Holbrook streets with signs asking for equity between the three towns, a contract for teachers and community support.
Hank Ogilby, a Freeport High School social studies teacher and negotiator for the teacher’s union, said the primary goal of the demonstration was to get the word out about the teachers’ situation.
“It is not a protest. We know our community supports us,” he said. “We haven’t wanted to embroil the community in this, but we just feel that now that the community is voting on two big-ticket expensive things, it’s awareness more than anything else. There are educators who feel frustrated and in some ways they just need to be heard.”
Ogilby said people should know not only that teachers have worked the year without a contract, but also that the pay scales, benefits and work conditions vary in Freeport, Pownal and Durham.
“I know it’s a tough economic environment, but our No. 1 goal has really been all along to bring the three towns together and to create a work environment that is consistent with the past histories of the town. We don’t feel that has been a focus and a priority,” Ogilby said. “I wonder if the taxpayers in Durham and Pownal know that their beloved teachers have not been moved to one RSU salary scale, that they have not been moved to one contract, that their teachers are basically valued less than the other teachers in the neighboring towns?”
Nancy Drolet, who is the president of the Coastal Education Association and a heath and physical education teacher at the high school, said teachers in all three communities have worked together for the benefit of the students, and it is time to make the contract a priority.
“This is not primarily about money …,” Drolet said. “It’s about the language. We want to bring everyone together.”
She said the evaluation process is different in each town, along with the grievance process, leave time, vacation and sick days.
“The community doesn’t know we are under fire because we are professionals,” Drolet said. “We don’t allow what happens in the outside world to interfere with our students and their world-class education.”
Ogilby said teachers have held off on public action all year because they didn’t want to hurt the negotiation process or the learning environment. But, now that the school year is winding down, they are ready to tell the community about the lack of a contract and different pay scales.
Negotiations are being handled with a state mediator, he said. The teacher’s union has representation from the Maine Education Association and the School Board has a representative from it’s law firm.
At the budget meeting, John Patterson of Freeport said he was shocked to learn that the teachers have been working without a contract. He called it appalling and said Tuesday’s referendum on athletic facilities showed a “misplaced set of priorities.”
“To have a referendum to vote on a $3 million track with lighting is extremely troubling,” he said. “(Teachers) deserve a contract, it is shameful we don’t have one and I find it shameful what you pay them.”
Superintendent Shannon Welsh said RSU 5 teachers were offered a 1.7 percent wage increase in December, but they refused.
She said when the three communities consolidated, Durham and Freeport needed a one-year contract extension to align with Pownal. Work began on the contracts in February 2010, but by December it became apparent that working through the contract language would take more time. Freeport’s contract alone is about 63 pages, she said.
“We are working to bring all three (districts) together under one RSU 5 contract,” Welsh said. “Despite everyone’s best efforts, it’s a time-consuming process.”
Ogilby said the offer of a 1.7 percent wage increase in December was rejected because it didn’t help to bring Pownal and Durham teachers together as part of the RSU.
“We really felt it was our job as a team, teachers and board, to start working toward one contract,” he said. “It felt disingenuous to us that the Freeport teachers would accept something that would have been fine … but it didn’t feel good to us to lock in our colleagues at their lower salaries.”
Ultimately, Ogilby and Drolet said they don’t want to start with new contracts, but favor working with existing contracts to fit the needs of all three communities. They also said they want the School board to make teacher contracts a higher priority.
“We’ve come to agreements in the past and we don’t mind tweaking (the contracts), but a fresh start is scary for us at times,” Drolet said. “We just need to have the tools, and a solid contract supporting the teachers is a great tool.”
Nelson Larkins, chairman of the School Board, said working to develop contract language has been time consuming. He said the people involved in the process have other jobs, and scheduling and attending meetings can often be a challenge.
There is no deadline for a contract, but Larkins said he is confident work will continue through the summer.
“The board, as much as the teachers, wants it done,” he said. “We are balancing everything, trying to make it fair for the teachers in the three communities and working to ensure everything is in the best interest of the students.”
Regional School Unit 5 teachers demonstrate at the corner of Main and Holbrook streets on June 8 before the district’s annual budget meeting to let the public know they’ve been working without a contract for a year.