Lawrence teachers demand contract talks, stalled since ’15

District seeks concessions before granting raises

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More than 200 members of the roughly 280-member Lawrence Teachers Association rallied for a new contract at the district Board of Education meeting on Nov. 6, and, led by union President Lori Skonberg they repeatedly called on the trustees to reopen negotiations. According to the LTA, there have been no contract discussions since Feb. 26, 2015.

A fact-finder’s report was issued in July, and it calls for the district to come to terms with the LTA as it has with three other unions — the Association of Lawrence Administrators, the Lawrence Facilities Management Association and the Lawrence Public Schools Association of Counselors — and offer the teachers comparable raises. The last LTA contract expired in 2011, and the teachers continue to operate under that agreement.

In the first year of a new contract that went into effect in the 2016-17 school year, ALA members received a 4 percent raise, and 1.25 percent increases in each of the next four years. LPSAC members got a 3.25 percent raise in 2015-16 and 1.25 percent increases for the succeeding three years. LFMA members received a 1 percent raise and a $5,000 bonus in 2015-16, and succeeding yearly increases of 1.5, 1.75 and 2 percent.

“The parties have spent a number of years at a serious impasse around the question of where money will come from to fund any increases to the members’ wages and benefits,” fact-finder Lisa Brogan, a lawyer appointed by the state Public Employment Relations Board, wrote in her report.

“The primary goal of this report is to give them a goal as they look for ways to raise some of the funds needed to support the increases, but also encourages the district to use some of the funds, which appear to be available, to support its core mission of instruction for its student population.”

At the board meeting, Skonberg noted that the trustees had said that contract talks would not resume until the issues of adding a sixth period of instruction that teachers would not be paid for, and the district’s use of non-union teachers for the universal pre-K program, were resolved. Both issues were adjudicated. An arbitrator sided with the LTA on the sixth period. An appellate court ruled in favor of the district on pre-K.

“It is time to come back to the table and negotiate with us,” Skonberg said. “Our entire team is ready, willing and able to begin, once again, at the commencement of this Board of Education meeting.”

The board declined the invitation. “Thank you for your comments,” board President Murray Forman said. “No, there will be no negotiating session tonight. This is not the forum.”

Skonberg told the Herald that the LTA had accepted the fact-finder’s report “as a basis of a new contract,” and that blame for the impasse rested squarely with the board, which, she added, “has been unwilling to compromise, even after the LTA offered concessions. The board has not made one counterproposal.”

Calling the board’s demands — including a 20 percent reduction in salary for new hires, capping the district’s health insurance contribution at 80 percent and reducing sick-day payouts which it described as “onerous,” — Skonberg said, “They would result in increased class size, reduction in staff, increases in workload, 20 percent lower salaries for new hires and freeze/reductions in salary for current employees.”

In response to questions from the Herald, Forman said that claiming that the parties have not met in more than two and a half years, and that the trustees had not attempted to engage the union since then, was “sheer nonsense.”

“There has always been a standing invitation to move forward and speak with the superintendent and business manager,” he said. “In the environment of the 2 percent tax cap, the only way to fund raises for employees are changes in the work rules. The other bargaining units made concessions that funded the raises they were given.”

The board has yet to decide whether to accept or reject the fact-finder’s report. Forman said the decision would be made in the near future.

The expected rise in pension costs for teachers and other faculty members is likely to impact the negotiations. The New York State Teachers’ Retirement System estimates that after three years of decreases, the cost will jump roughly 10 percent in 2018-19.

“Absolutely, the hard reality for me is to predict the last five years, and the pension trajectory has been an uncontrollable expense,” Forman said. “We believe that any demand that we made will definitely result in the reduction of the staff and is part of the negotiating process. We don’t think that this in any way will affect the quality of education we deliver to the children.”

Skonberg said she was frustrated and disappointed that she has to demand that the board meet with the LTA to negotiate a new agreement. “My members’ dedication to their students is uncompromising,” she said. “We put so much into what we do each and every day, and what we get in return is disrespect, flippancy, dishonor, impudence and out-and-out rudeness.”

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