Teachers, city to resume talks with mediator

Teachers, city to resume talks with mediator

School Committee candidates weigh in on contract impasse

WOONSOCKET – The Woonsocket Teachers Guild and city negotiating committee have agreed on a mediator and are looking to resume talks on a proposed salary increase that stalled contract negotiations earlier this year.

Earlier this week, the state Department of Labor and Training (DLT) assigned Frederic Marzilli to mediate further discussions. Marzilli is an East Providence-based lawyer who has practiced law in Rhode Island since 1979. He obtained his undergraduate degree from Providence College and his law degree from Columbus School of Law at Catholic University and has served as legal counsel for the state General Assembly.

According to WTG President Jeff Partington, Marzilli was chosen from a list of 15 names proposed by the DLT and agreed upon by both parties, who then notified the DLT of their choice. Partington said the two parties were discussing possible meeting dates and looked forward to resuming negotiations.

“I’m very hopeful that a reasonable solution can be brought up by the mediator if that’s what it takes,” he said. “I believe that we can get this done if the city comes up with some more reasonable numbers.”

While no talks had been scheduled as of press time on Tuesday, Charles Ruggerio, the city’s lead negotiator, told The Breeze he hopes to resume negotiations within two weeks.

“We’re optimistic. We think we’ll be able to have some productive mediation sessions and I think we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to reach an agreement with the understanding that we’re still facing certain economic realities that we have to contend with,” he said.

The negotiations reached an impasse shortly before the start of the school year after the city and the WTG were unable to come to an agreement on a proposed salary increase. While neither party would reveal the numbers under consideration, several city teachers told The Valley Breeze the city had not offered any pay increase for the duration of the three-year contract, according to their union communications. Since Sept. 4, teachers have operated under work-to-rule status, working only to the letter of their contract and refusing volunteer commitments with the schools to protest the city’s position.

The lack of contract has become a contentious issue as the city approaches the November election, with political opponents blaming Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt for the breakdown in negotiations and others pointing out that, while no longer under the direct oversight of the Budget Commission, the city remains in an uncertain financial condition.

Several of the nine candidates for School Committee shared their thoughts on the issue, most expressing support for a pay increase for teachers but several also adding the city’s economic realities must be taken into consideration. If the teachers’ contract remains unresolved when the committee turns over from an appointed to an elected committee after the November election, the city negotiating committee would be disbanded and the new School Committee would take over negotiations.

Donald Burke, a teacher at Bridgewater-Raynham Regional High School whose lack of reappointment to the committee earlier this year spurred calls for a return to an elected school board, said he supported a salary increase for teachers and hoped teachers would reverse their work-to-rule status as talks progressed.

“My hope is because the mediator has been chosen and things will start to move forward that maybe the teachers could pull back their work-to-rule, because I know it is affecting the students and I know it bothers the teachers,” he said.

Lynn Kapiskas, co-chairwoman of the city’s Special Education Local Advisory Committee, also supported an increase and added she hopes to expand the committee’s consideration of the needs of students who receive special education services, which now number about 25 percent of total students. With regard to the work-to-rule status, she said she has not received any complaints of special education students being negatively impacted, with the exception of one parent who had difficulty reaching a teacher with a homework question after-hours.

“Absolutely they should get a raise. I know because I’ve been involved with the schools, I know the sacrifices financially they they’ve made, the raises they’ve surrendered in order to keep the school department funded for the necessities,” said Kapiskas.

Eleanor Nadeau and Donald Hoard, both retired educators, also expressed support for a pay increase as well as disappointment the two parties had not been able to reach an agreement prior to the start of the school year.

“I think it’s disgraceful that they don’t have a contract. I negotiated contracts over my tenure as a member of the School Committee several times and even in the worst of times, they still had a contract,” said Nadeau, who previously served on the School Committee from 1975 to 1979 and from 2005 to 2013.

Two other candidates, Kelly Wilson and Rebecca Capwell, were more tempered in their comments on the dispute, but Capwell said she has looked at the current salary scale and sees an opportunity for a step-based increase approach. Both candidates noted they are not aware of the numbers under consideration and said the negotiations should be able to yield a solution that balances the interests of the teachers and taxpayers.

“The teacher’s union and the city should be able to reach a mutual agreement while maintaining the best interest for the teachers and being fiscally responsible with the budget,” Wilson wrote in an email.

School Committee Vice-chairman Paul Bourget, who is running for election, was also cautious in his remarks but said he supports a pay increase for teachers depending on the numbers and the available budget. Bourget also noted the city will need to increase its local funding at some point in the near future if it wants to maintain state education funding.

“It’s not a matter of getting a raise, it’s how much and when,” he said. “The teachers definitely deserve a raise, but it’s how much can you afford.”

School Committee Chairman Soren Seale, who is also running for election, did not return a request for comment. He previously told The Breeze it would not be appropriate for him to comment on ongoing negotiations as chairman of the School Committee.

Matthew Oriani, an alternate member of the city Personnel Board running for School Committee, also did not return a request for comment.

Comments

I wonder if any other poor slobs out there paying high taxes get mediation when they need a raise? Answer: Next to no one does. Teachers work 180 days a year and the poor slobs paying for it have to work year round and will be forced to pay more!

Oh Nelson, you are wrong. CHILDREN go to school 180 days per year. Teachers work more than that. Teachers have training days and MANY professional days that are required. Now, add on the fact that they have been working to educate our children without a raise for 9 years (while health insurance and other utilities increase). Why shouldn't they get a raise? DO you have the same paycheck that you got 9 years ago???