Chief Justice suggests East Providence, teachers settle long-standing dispute

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EAST PROVIDENCE — The latest twist in the enduring legal saga between the East Providence Teachers’ Association and the city came just over a week ago when Chief Justice Paul Suttell recommended the two sides reach a settlement rather than have the State Supreme Court render a ruling.

Justice Suttell, as is often the wont on the Supreme Court on such matters, made his suggestion during closing arguments in the case Thursday, Oct. 25. According to reports of the proceedings, Justice Suttell offered to name an arbiter to work out the details of a settlement. If either side declines, the Supreme Court would eventually rule on the case, a determination likely coming sometime next spring.

The outcome of the case has significant ramifications for East Providence and all other municipalities around the state.

If it goes to a decision and the teachers win, they would recoup their lost wages for one year. A ruling for the teachers would cost the city millions of dollars. Estimates put the amount between $3 and $4 million. It could also disrupt the fiscal structure the state-appointed Budget Commission is currently attempting to put in place.

If the city wins, the ability of teachers’ unions in Rhode Island to negotiate would suffer a severe blow. Local School Committees and City Councils would still be required to go through mediation, but their power to implement contractual changes sans talks would be greatly enhanced.

Ultimately, teachers’ unions would have little recourse, save for taking their fight to the legal system. School Committees, as well, are keeping a watchful eye on the matter, wanting to find out how the phrase “bargaining in good faith” is defined by the courts.

The union and the city have been legal combatants for nearly four years, dating back to January of 2009 when the then-School Committee announced its unprecedented decision to roll back a five-percent pay increase given to the teachers two years prior and make them begin to pay 20 percent of their healthcare costs after having contributed nothing previously.

The School Committee’s action, in addition, booted 120 teachers with access to other means of healthcare out of the city’s plan. It also took away a $1,000-a-year bonus given to teachers with masters’ degrees.

At the time, the Committee said the School Department was some $4.5 million in the red. Ironically, the same School Committee departed office in late 2010 having left the newly elected body with an over $7 million deficit.

The East Providence Teachers had been working without a new contract since Oct. 31, 2008. They did not strike, choosing to continue to negotiate. Soon after, though, talks between the sides broke down and led to the ground-breaking decision by the School Committee to implement the pay cuts and require healthcare contributions from the city’s some 500 teachers for the first time.

The case initially went to non-binding arbitration with the State Labor Relations Board (SLRB). Arbiter Michael C. Ryan judged the teachers should accept no pay increases for a year and start to pay part of their health insurance. He said negotiations on a new contract should continue. The EPTA overwhelming voted to accept the decision. The School Committee, however, rejected Mr. Ryan’s pronouncement and unilaterally put its proposals into place.

The School Committee next decided to sue in Superior Court where Judge Michael Silverstein deemed it had acted lawfully in implementing the cuts, citing the $4 million plus shortfall the department faced. State law prevents School Departments from deficit spending. In his ruling, Judge Silverstein wrote it was in the purview of School Committees managing a department in arrears to act “not withstanding any other law,” basically giving them carte blanche to initiate any action necessary to get their books in order.

The teachers appealed the matter to the State Supreme Court, which declined to intervene, leaving the case under the auspices of the SLRB. The Committee countered by filing a suit to remove the SLRB from the case. The SLRB, however, later recused itself from the proceedings. The teachers’ only recourse was to return to Supreme Court.

The School Committee and teachers eventually reached a two-year contract late in 2010, which was back-dated to include the 2009-10 as well as the 2010-11 term. The contract was then implemented by the new Committee voted in office following November 2010 election.

The current Committee, however, was almost immediately tasked with negotiating another new pact. Before the Budget Commission was installed by the state, it had negotiated a tentative agreement with the teachers, but it was tabled by the state-appointees.

The Budget Commission’s legal representative Joseph Whalen is currently in discussions with the union attempting to settle the contract dispute as well as other issues like healthcare co-pays and salaries of school system coaches. Sources say those talks are going well and could be concluded by as soon as the end of November or hopefully before the end of the calendar year.

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