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Teachers Refuse Wage Freeze, Double-Digit Layoffs Expected

Union Blames Town's Inaction On Health Care Costs

The teachers union refused a wage freeze Monday, which will force the board of education to lay off 15 to 20 people, Superintendent Jerome Belair said.

A wage freeze would have saved the town $900,000 in salary, according to Assistant Superintendent Craig Powers. The board of education passed a $42.99 million budget in January that assumed the teachers, along with the other six unions, would accept a wage freeze.

The administrators union agreed to the wage freeze in February, saving the town $35,000. The other four unions are likely to follow the teachers and refuse the wage freeze, according to a variety of sources.

The total cost of the salary increases of the five unions would be $1.2 million, Belair said. To make up that number, up to 20 positions would have to go, he said.

The board of education will hold a special meeting on Tuesday, March 15. There, the new proposal will be made, Belair said.

Class sizes will be larger and fewer programs will be offered, Belair said. More costs could be shifted to parents, such as paying for half of students’ advanced placement tests or for them to participate in school athletics, he said.

The average teacher is set to receive a 4.3 percent increase, including step increases, according to budget documents. After meeting with union leaders Feb. 28, Belair proposed to cut the raise to 2.15 percent to all employees and remove the step increase. The union voted to not vote on that concession as well.

Union’s Side

The union issued a press release Tuesday evening, and Patch interviewed Union President Martha Shoemaker as well. In both, they said the district’s inability to act on rising health care costs led to the vote.

Health care costs rose $1.6 million from last year, a 26.61 percent increase, according to budget documents. Almost nothing has been done to fix that problem, Shoemaker said.

Meanwhile, the percentage teachers have spent on their own health care has increased to 18 percent this year, the highest of any town employees, according to the press release and First Selectman Dan Steward.

Last year, the teachers agreed to two furlough days, which saved the town $263,750, according to the press release. Part of that concession was that the district would look into fixing the spiraling health care costs, Shoemaker said.

“This problem is not going away,” she said. “We as teachers can’t fix it. The town administrators need to fix it.”

Then-Superintendent Randall Collins agreed to create a committee to look into the issue, with union representation on the committee, the press release said. The committee, comprising some board of education members, Finance Director Rudy Beers and School Business Manager Michael Deray, has met twice since last March. No union representatives were allowed on the committee, the release said.

“The (teachers union’s) members feel that this issue will be revisited year after year until the true problem is addressed and any sacrifices on the part of the union would be another temporary Band-Aid,” the release said.

An email Collins sent to the union last year said its representatives would be able to meet with Beers to look into the costs of health care insurance to “bring about a better understanding.” That meeting never happened, the press release alleged.

Shoemaker, along with the heads of all other district and town unions, is meeting today at 4:30 p.m. at the Waterford Library with Steward, Belair and other officials to discuss the issue. Answers can still be found to avoid layoffs, she said.“We are always open to listen,” Shoemaker said. 

Administrator’s Take

Great Neck Elementary Principal and Administrators Union President Pat Fedor did not comment on the teachers’ decision to refuse the wage freeze.

Despite the likelihood that the other five unions will refuse the wage freeze, the administrators are still comfortable with their decision to accept the wage freeze, she said.

“We are very comfortable with the decision we made,” Fedor said. “We still absolutely think it was the right thing to do.”

Reaction From The Board of Education

Board of Education Chairman Don Blevins also refused to comment on the teachers’ decision, calling it their decision. The big issue now would be finding out where to cut, he said.

Next Tuesday, the board will have to decide to cut programs or to cut across the board and increase class sizes. Blevins said he would prefer to cut across the board and keep programs, because once a program leaves it is hard to get back.

Belair has asked if the board would be willing to let parents pay for more extracurricular activities. Although saying “everything is on the table,” Blevins said he would strongly resist that.

“I’ll go back to the old cliché that public education is the public’s responsibility,” he said.   

 

Full Press Release From The Teachers Union Defending The Decision

The Waterford Federation of Classroom Teachers voted not to vote on the wage freeze/concessions presented to them within the last month.  Teachers met on Monday, February 28th and held a vote on March 7th in all schools.  The Board of Education originally proposed a wage freeze for the 2011-12 school year.  WFCT leaders met with the administration and presented a list of possible cost saving measures for the 2011/12 budget.  Last week, Jerry Belair proposed another wage concession that instituted a 2.15% wage increase on the current 2010-11 contract, with no step movement.  This proposal also provided that the union would pay the contracted increase of 18% in overall health care costs with no extension of the contract. 

The Federation has been told that the current budget is a result of increased health insurance claims.  Over the last fourteen months the WFCT has asked for information on the current status of the Health Care Reserve Account established in 2003 by town administrators. The only answer we have received thus far is that it is gone. 

Last year, the Federation voted to take two furlough days in a good faith effort to stem mounting costs associated with health insurance.  Individual teacher contributions ranged up to $975.  This brought about $263,750 in savings to the current town budget.  Teachers’ Insurance percentages increased from 16% to 17% in 2010-11 and will increase to 18% in the upcoming fiscal year.  Insurance costs have risen throughout the contract.  Monthly installments for teachers have risen from $272.14 (09/10) to 427.93(11/12) for family coverage.  As a result of last year’s wage concessions, the WFCT was told the town would investigate the systemic problems of its current self-insurance policy.  In an email dated 2/3/2010, the union members were assured that the WFCT would be part of this investigation.  The WFCT understands that a small committee of Board of Education members have met twice, since last March, with the insurance representative for Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield, the school business manager, Michael Deray; and the town’s director of finance, Ruth Beers.  In August of 2010, WFCT union leaders further asked the Board of Education to consider allowing all union presidents under the BOE to attend these meetings so that the information provided by the insurance representative would be heard by all.  Union leaders were not asked to participate. The WFCT feels it is crucial that the town addresses the health care system that has created this financial burden. The WFCT members feel that this issue will be revisited year after year until the true problem is addressed and any sacrifices on the part of the union would be another temporary band-aid.

Kevin Girard March 09, 2011 at 12:31 PM
Paul: Did they release the vote breakdown (Yes/No/Abstain)? I'm curious whether this was a landslide or a close vote.
Paul Petrone (Editor) March 09, 2011 at 01:00 PM
Unions almost never release the vote breakdown. I do not know. I'm sure there are some teachers reading this who could answer better than me.
Greg M March 09, 2011 at 02:46 PM
Health care seems to be the big issue here. Do you have any information on how health care currently works for the teachers union?
KMC March 09, 2011 at 03:13 PM
Interesting the BOE passed a budget assuming the various unions involved would accept a wage freeze. I suspect they did so since the teachers agreed to a concession last year and they drew the conclusion they would concede again. In good economic times would the BOE have passed a budget granting wage increases higher than the contract required? Of course not. Then why should the BOE expect the union to reopen the contract to take a freeze? The BOE apparently negotiated a contract that overestimated revenues over the term of the agreement. They then compound that failure by refusing to properly address health care inflation and they show their true feelings to union members by cutting them out of the discussion. The BOE's mistakes are NOT the fault of the union and I, for one, am tired of teachers and other public sector employees being made the scapegoats for employer policy failures and shortsightedness.
Johnny Wtfd March 09, 2011 at 04:59 PM
Why didn't Ole Jerry lead by example and give up most of his grossly overpaid salarly?? That's right, he did us all a favor by "taking a pay cut" by coming here from Weston. Typical Waterford "leader"
Crazy-in-Wtfd. March 09, 2011 at 05:56 PM
Safety Truths- You can not bash Mr. Belair for accepting a wage, that through negotiations, was offered to him. Thats exactly what the teachers are doing. That is the town's issue, not Mr. Belair's. Would you turn down that money if offered? I doubt it. I wouldn't.
Paul Petrone (Editor) March 09, 2011 at 11:39 PM
Expect a full story Friday morning. I did some research today and am waiting for the teachers union response. The fact is health care, and this is supported from documents, has gone up because claims have gone up tremendously. In four years claims have gone up from $7 million to $10 million; with no trend showing that before that. People have gotten terrible claims, for whatever reason, and the town has to pay; there is no alternative. There really is not much the town can do when claims go up, things happen. Waterford is self-insured. The teachers union has asked if using a standard health insurance package would be cheaper. According to bid done by the finance department, a standard health insurance package would be $2.2 million more expensive. The teachers union has also alleged that the town has done little to fix the issue. Finance Director Rudie Beers was livid over this allegation. The finance department is constantly looking at the best way to solve health care costs, and is always looking for cheaper providers, Beers said. Saying the town has done little is completely inaccurate, she said. The teachers union also had some questions regarding health care, although Beers has said that nobody from the teachers union has contacted her for the entire fiscal year. Many of the questions they had she answered for me today, and will be in Friday's article.
Dave March 10, 2011 at 12:57 PM
Paul - I would like to know the BOE and Mr Belair's response to spending $8000 on office furniture and paying the Janitorial staff OT to retrive his belongins in Wesport & putting the furnitre together!!
Paul Petrone (Editor) March 10, 2011 at 01:39 PM
Dave, I'll look into it. Although right now the focus is largely on how the district will balance the budget, as currently, with the rejection of the wage freeze, they need to make up $1.2 million. But I will ask the question. Thank you for reading! Paul
Charlotte Zito March 10, 2011 at 04:02 PM
I think the whole thing is selfish and greedy!!!We didn't have a union to fight for our social security cut. No they just took it away. With this no-one wins--everyone looses. The kids in school,the teachers who will be layed off,the tax payers, and the list goes on and on. It tells me that the ones who don't want to their pay raises cut out can't live on a budget like the rest of us do.We have to cut back on our expenses,but they don't. Come on now...there has to be a better way then to hurt everyone else because of their greed.I have a lot more to say,but I am sure I have already made a lot of people very up set.
mark v. foster March 11, 2011 at 01:16 AM
I believe that everyone should attach his name to his comments here. Then the urge to be impolite might seem less strong, and the desire to engage in civil discourse may prevail. Granted, all superintendents are grossly overpaid … until you have been down a road of 20 years of public service to get the position, and then the endless public scrutiny once you've gotten it. Personally, I would not want his position, even for $200,ooo. At any rate, Mr. Belair was offered a position for a certain salary and he accepted it. I don't think that we can begrudge him that. I don't see why we need to call him Ole Jerry; give people appropriate respect until they have given you cause to withhold it. Mr. Belair is faced now with a problem that can't be fixed. People continually act rather childishly when they discuss this issue, in that they seem to think that there is a magical company out there which will pay out ten million dollars in health care claims, but some how only charge the town half that figure in premiums. The underlying issue here is the spiraling cost of health care in America today. No system is going to remain solvent when it's subject to such unpredictable and uncontrollable expenses. It makes no more sense to attack the Board of Education for "scheming against us" or Mr. Belair for having new furniture than it does to attack a given employee for having cancer or other chronic illness. That's the problem. Solve it and be a hero. Dr. Mark V. Foster
Paul Petrone (Editor) March 11, 2011 at 01:58 AM
Mark, Well said. At the Patch, along with every other news source I ever worked for, there has always been a strong debate over whether we should let the comments be confidential or not. To be honest, practically, it might be difficult to enforce, it would be hard for me to know if that is really the actual person's name. But on a fundamental level, I think it is certainly a strong argument, one we discuss constantly. I am curious what others think. If many other people feel that they want everybody who comments to write their full name, Patch could probably find a way to make that happen. If people prefer the current system, I'll keep it. I'm curious what the public has to say, let me know.
Tim Fioravanti March 11, 2011 at 02:32 AM
I always use my name. I have no reason to hide behind my comments. I will not comment unless I have done the appropriate research. If I am ever wrong, I certainly want to know it. Not only do I teach everyday, I also want to learn. I invite intellectual discussion, but only with people that can stand behind their words. Mark, well said.
Crazy-in-Wtfd. March 11, 2011 at 02:40 AM
Although there are some people who post ridiculous comments because they are hidden behind a screen name, most..(cough cough...me included)...post what I hope is relative points to the conversation. I like the fact that I don't have to share my name for my own personal reasons. Rude or offensive comments can be deleted regardless if a name is attached right?
Waterford Rez March 11, 2011 at 05:03 PM
Mark, There are few pros and many cons to that idea. Many people are in the system in which they want to comment about. Many have good info to share to. They would certainly be intimidated and most likely not comment if they had to reveal their ID. Also, what it the purpose of a discussion board such as this? Share ideas, thoughts, info and concerns or reveal people IDs? Leave it the way it is. Will there be people who "engage in civil discourse"? Yes, so what. This is America, not Iran, we have that right. Many famous columnists and authors use pseudonyms to protect their ID and privacy; Mark Twain's real name was Samuel Clemens. If your goal is to force people to lie about there ID or shut down free speech, then by all means force them to revile their identity. If you are willing to filter through some civil discourse but keep the the concept of openness, then leave it the way it is.
mark v. foster March 11, 2011 at 06:28 PM
To Waterford Rez: A few clarifications follow. 1. You misunderstand "Civil discourse". It's what we hope for. Here is wikipedia on the topic: "Civil discourse is engagement in conversation intended to enhance understanding.[1] Kenneth J. Gergen describes civil discourse as "the language of dispassionate objectivity", and suggests that it requires respect of the other participants, such as the reader. It neither diminishes the other's moral worth, nor questions their good judgment; it avoids hostility, direct antagonism, or excessive persuasion; it requires modesty and an appreciation for the other participant's experiences." We need more of this not less. 2. You're right: this is NOT Iran. We can speak our minds and not fear Ahmadinejad's thugs at our door. If we stick to the truth and speak politely, we are supposed to be able to speak freely in America. Even when we see the truth differently, we can discuss the difference politely. 3. I'm in the system too. It doesn't matter what you have to say; just speak your mind courteously. I begin to suspect that you have the whole freedom of speech concept upside-down. 4. Samuel Clemens / Mark Twain was the wrong example. He didn't hide behind Mark Twain, he was publicly known that way. He once or twice wrote articles under the name Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass to hide his identity. (I'm a huge Twain fan.) 5. "REVILE their identity"? That's quite a Freudian slip.
Waterford Rez March 11, 2011 at 07:26 PM
Mark, here's my point. You may think that it's very acceptable to force someone to reveal their identity. Not everybody agrees. You post your name, that's great. Some people don't, so what? There are many reasons not to. You're free to post your name, I'm free not to. I respect you for posting it; I'm only asking you respect others who don't. The world isn't perfect; there are mean, vindictive coworkers, bosses and friends. In the words of Metallica- Sad but true. I appreciate your opinion and thank you for sharing it. Finally, there is just the simple logistics of it. How would you possibly verify someone's name within reasonable limits? The very same people who would probably not participate in civil discourse (proper use?) will be the very same people that will falsely misrepresent themselves, so in the end nothing will be accomplished except for a less open environment.
Dave March 11, 2011 at 07:35 PM
Mark Foster - Yes Mr Belair didn't create this problem, yes he is in a no win position. However if he is any kind of leader he should lead by example and NOT spend $8000 on furniture! Ultimately it will be the kids who will feel the results of budget cuts and no one else.
mark v. foster March 11, 2011 at 08:42 PM
After weighing the pros and cons, I think I agree with you. I only ask that people re-read their submission and PRETEND it was going online over their signature. Maybe that will help people to be more polite. I thank you for sharing your opinion too.

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