PORTSMOUTH — Teachers started the school year with new students but no contract Tuesday morning.
Amanda Boswell, the new president of the Portsmouth chapter of the National Education Association (NEA), said union officials and the School Committee met for a negotiating session Monday but no agreement was reached.
Another session was set for today, Aug. 28.
“All negotiations are complicated,” said Ms. Boswell, who last week succeeded Sue Hatch as union president. “The teachers are fully engaged in the negotiation process and we’ve had good dialogue between us and the School Committee and we hope to reach a conclusion soon. Most school districts struggle with the same sorts of things every time the contract comes up.” She added that the union wants to secure a contract that’s advantageous to both teachers and their students.
Ms. Boswell declined to comment on the specifics of the talks, saying she wanted the union to negotiate “in good faith” with the School Committee. She also wouldn’t comment on whether the union was considering a strike.
“We’re still negotiating and we’re still trying to reach an agreement,” she said.
On Tuesday, School Committee Chairman David Croston said he couldn’t guess when an agreement will be reached, but that talks with union officials have been productive.
“I think we had a very fruitful meeting (Monday) and I hope we can build off that,” he said. “While there’s still a considerable amount of discussion to do, yesterday at least allowed us to discuss in a more open format what our more global goals are.”
Talks are centering on several areas, he said, including salaries and benefits, “how we are looking at certain management rights” and teacher assessments. “I don’t really believe our differences are that great. They may feel otherwise,” said Mr. Croston.
Frustrated with slow pace
Ms. Hatch, who left the school district to take a teaching position in Middletown this year, had more to say on the negotiations when reached Monday. In particular, she said she had been frustrated with the slow pace of talks between the union and School Committee.
“We had requested (bargaining) back in December so that we could move forward with it,” said Ms. Hatch, noting that the first negotiation session wasn’t held until July. “We would have liked to have been settled before school started. But we only had four sessions prior to (Monday). I don’t think we met enough times to make progress. They were short sessions every time.”
As for the sticking points in the talks, Ms. Hatch said they were less about salaries and benefits and more about “negotiating changes than just implementing them.”
“As I understand there were (class sizes) that were over the contractual number,” said Ms. Hatch, adding that it’s something the union could file a grievance over if not resolved.
At this time of year, Ms. Hatch said teachers are interested only in educating their students, not spending hours in negotiations. “No teacher ever wants to go back to school without a contract. They want to be focused on teaching and now they have to meet twice after school,” she said.
Mr. Croston said negotiations didn’t start until July because the School Committee was still trying to get its “hands around” the 2012-2013 budget, adding that the district implemented many changes including its first full-day kindergarten program.
“That put us behind the eight ball. At the end of the day, the integrity of these discussions are built on the fact that we have a very good grasp of where we stand financially and where we’re going to be five years from now,” said Mr. Croston, noting that teacher salaries and benefits make up about “70 percent” of the district’s budget. “We couldn’t necessarily have an in-depth conversation unless we had an in-depth look at our budget.”
He added that the School Committee demonstrated back in May that it wants to have a good relationship with the union. That’s when the committee ended a two-year-plus dispute between school management and the teachers’ union by approving a policy that recognizes longevity — among other criteria — when considering hirings, promotions and layoffs.
“We don’t have an outstanding labor dispute right now,” he said.
Asked whether she had a problem with the fact that negotiations began seven months after the union requested collective bargaining, Ms. Boswell replied, “We didn’t begin until July 8 and that’s all I’m going to say about that.”
As for Ms. Hatch’s other comments, Ms. Boswell pointed out that her predecessor is no longer involved in union talks with the School Committee.
“She hasn’t been involved in negotiations for a few weeks now and she’s not privy to information that we have now behind closed doors, which is the way I’d prefer to keep it,” said Ms. Boswell.
Energetic first day
Mr. Croston, who toured the schools Tuesday along with other committee members, said the “energy was really there” on opening day, and thanked administrators for their hard work.
“The only glitch we had was that the busing schedule in Little Compton was running 15 minutes ahead of schedule,” he said. (High school-age students in Little Compton attend Portsmouth High School.)
He also said the district received an “unprecedented amount” of registrations in the last few days leading up to Tuesday’s start. “We’re maxed out on (kindergarten) and we’re maxed out on basically (grades) 1 and 2,” said Mr. Croston, who attributed the influx mainly to military families staying in the area for one or two years.