Going into Monday’s meeting, several Representative Town Meeting members said they were “guns blazing, ready to shoot this .” But after a 35-minute presentation by Superintendent Jerome Belair, Board of Education Chairman Donald Blevins and School Buisness Manager Ron Melnik, those minds were changed.
“This was the single best presentation of a contract I’ve seen in Waterford in the time I’ve been here,” said RTM member John Foley, who has been critical of other union contracts in the past. “I came in ready to shoot this down, and I’m ready to turn the plane around.”
The RTM passed a new three-year contract with the teachers union, with salary increases averaging 1.92 percent per year and cuts to the teacher's health insurance, by an 15 to 1 vote. The only member to vote against the contract was Republican Richard Muckle. The deal will take effect on July 1, 2012.
Belair, Blevins and Melnik went into detail about how the contract was settled, using statistics and examples from other districts. The key issues were to get rid of long-term retirement benefits, and address skyrocketing health insurance costs, Belair said.
“We realized our number one priority in this negotiation was health insurance costs,” he said. “Our goal was to take the big-picture approach in this contract.”
Waterford teachers will pay 18 percent, 18.5 percent and 19 percent of their health care costs over the three years of the contract, much higher than any other town union and the highest in southeastern Connecticut for teachers, Belair said. Co-pays were increased from $20 to eventually $30 by the end of the contract, much higher than all other town employees, according to district documents.
There were also cuts to retirement benefits to new employees, such as eliminating sick leave buyouts and retirement health insurance coverage for employees hired after July 1, according to the contract. Language was changed to allow the town to go out to bid to get a new insurance company, Belair said.
Belair said the 1.75 percent raise in the first year in the contract was higher than other districts. But overall for the length of the contract, the salary increases are less than the state average, he said.
More importantly, when other districts got a zero percent salary increase for teachers in the first year, there were no health care cuts in that year, Belair said. By allowing a small increase, it allowed the District to get cuts in the teacher's health insurance plan, he said.
Overall, the new contract will cost taxpayers $130,321 more in 2012-13, $170,531 more in 2013-14 and $138,918 more in 2014-15, according to District documents. Teachers with at least a bachelor’s degree and 30 hours toward their masters degree at the highest step (77 percent of all Waterford teachers) will receive a $415 pay raise, increasing their pay from $85,072 to $85,487, according to budget documents and Melnik.
Several RTM members said they went into the meeting planning to vote against the contract, but decided to vote for it. And while many were pleased with the work of the administration, there were still things they would like to see changed.
RTM members Andrea Kanfer and Rodney Pinkham both argued that salary increases should not be guaranteed just for longevity. Instead, it should be performance-based, they said.
“Some of those step progressions from one year to the next are nice increases,” Pinkham said. “I’ve never seen increases like that without a pretty solid performance.”
Overall though, the group agreed the contract was “a good step forward,” as RTM member Michael Hannan said. But again, it might be just the beginning to get public sector employees to feel private sector pain, Foley said.
“In looking at the benefits, the teachers are paying more, and we need to respect that, and we certainly do,” he said. “But it seems to me that they are now paying what the real world has been paying for a long period of time.”
"We are relieved," teachers union President Martha Shoemaker said after the meeting. "It is a good contract for the times."