October 25, 2014

Chester School Board Approves New Three-Year Teacher Contract

REGION 4—  The Chester Board of Education Tuesday approved the new three-year contract for Region 4 teachers, setting up a required 20-day on-file period before the agreement becomes effective.   The board approved the contract, which will provide about 220 teachers serving Chester, Deep River, and Essex with a total 9.5 percent salary increase over three years, on a 7-1 vote, with member Ashley Marsh opposed.

The Chester board, which governs the operations of the Chester Elementary School, lacked a quorum when the district’s three other school boards, the Region 4 Board of Education and the local school boards for Deep River and Essex, approved the agreement at a Dec. 6 meeting. The approvals were unanimous for the two local boards, but the vote for the Region 4 board that governs the two secondary schools was three members supporting the agreement, two opposed, and one abstaining. Two members, including board Chairwoman Linda Hall, were absent.

Members Laurie Tomlinson of Deep River and Mario Gioco of Chester voted against the contract, with member Ann Monaghan of Chester abstaining. Each had questioned the impact of the total salary settlement on future budgets and tax rates for their towns. Board members that had participated in the negotiations that led to the agreement, including current Supervision District Chairwoman Wendy King of Chester, maintained the salary package was in line with other nearby school districts, and that rejecting the contract would lead to last and best offer binding arbitration with the cost of the process to be paid by the school district.

The contract provides teachers with an average 3.9 percent salary increase in 2013-2014, a 1.7 percent pay increase in 2014-2015, and a 3.9 percent increase on 2015-2016. The totals include step increases on the 12-step teacher salary schedule in 2013-2014 and 2015-2016, but not in 2014-2015. The anticipated total cost increase of the package would vary among the four boards, ranging from 9.12 percent over three years for Region 4, to a total 11.3 percent hike in salary expenses for Deep River Elementary School.

Under state las the contract is now filed with town clerks for the three towns for 20 days, a period where the board of selectmen for any town could request a town meeting vote on the agreement. Rejection of the contract by voters in any of the three district towns would block approval and send the contract negotiations to binding arbitration.

While selectmen in the three towns are expressing varying degrees of concern about the budget and tax rate impact of the contract, a move to force a town meeting vote on the agreement is considered unlikely with the tight 20-day on-file period that falls over the Christmas and New Years holidays. Such a challenge has never occurred in previous Region 4 contract negotiations.

Deep River selectmen discussed the contract at a Dec. 11 meeting, with all three selectmen, First Selectman Richard Smith and selectmen Angus Mcdonald Jr. and David Oliveria, expressing concern about the cost of the three-year package. Smith said he objected to providing a 3.9 percent pay hike in the first year, with two additional increases building on that. Mcdonald predicted “a sticky spring” for education budgets that could lead to teacher job cuts to limit the budget and tax rate impact. But Deep River selectmen did not move to challenge the contract, and are not scheduled to hold another meeting until Jan. 8, at the end of the 20-day file period.

Essex First Selectman Norman Needleman said the contract “is not the way I would have negotiated it,” but added that board negotiators “did the best they could,” given that pay raises for district teachers have been lower over the past five years. Needleman said it would be “counter-productive” to challenge the agreement and send the negotiations to binding arbitration. The Chester Board of Selectmen were scheduled to discuss the Region 4 teacher contract at a meeting Wednesday evening.