PORTSMOUTH — The School Committee and teachers’ union will be starting with a clean slate when they sit down shortly for contract negotiations.
A two-year-plus dispute between school management and the local teachers’ union, National Education Association (NEA) Portsmouth, is likely over after the School Committee Tuesday night approved a policy that recognizes longevity — among other criteria — when considering hirings, promotions and layoffs, according to Committee Chairman David Croston.
The previous School Committee’s decision to switch to a promotion system based on performance, and not on seniority, led to the teachers’ union filing an unfair labor complaint against the district.
The exact language of the new policy was not released publicly, as NEA Portsmouth must still vote to approve the changes, according to Supt. Lynn Krizic, who said that should take place “within a week or two.”
All sides seemed relieved after Tuesday’s vote, however.
“I just can’t say thank you enough,” NEA Portsmouth President Sue Hatch told the committee. “It is a long time coming. It’s a great plan. It puts students first, but it recognizes the time and commitment” of teachers. She said it was a relief to know that “the people we work for respect that.”
The vote represents “a huge step forward” when it comes to the committee’s relationship with teachers and the union, said Mr. Croston.
“It’s huge,” he said. “There’s been a rift over the last two years. This committee from day one wanted to get rid of this as the first item on our agenda. It’s just taken a little bit longer to come to an agreement on the terms.”
The falling-out dates back to January 2011, when then-superintendent Susan Lucci, on a recommendation from the R.I. Department of Education and State Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, decided that no personnel decision could be based on seniority, according to Mr. Croston.
The School Committee then formed a policy, known as 4111, “that basically said that with any open position, everyone had to compete for it — inside, outside — with no real regard to seniority,” he said. “Obviously, NEA Portsmouth did not like that.”
The teachers’ union filed an unfair labor claim against the prior committee, which responded by filing suit in Superior Court in April 2011 to restore its management rights during negotiations.
“Superior Court denied that suit and basically turned back and said, ‘You have to wait for the Labor Board to make their decision on the unfair labor claim,’” said Mr. Croston. “Then the prior committee went to Supreme Court and was actually appealing the decision of the Superior Court to not hear the case. So to me, it was just a bunch of money we were moving forward to the attorneys.”
The unfair labor claim has been in abeyance since earlier this year, and the current school committee, which has new legal counsel, voted to drop the Supreme Court appeal, he said.
The committee did not make any significant revisions to policy 4111 on Tuesday, according to Mr. Croston. “It basically recognizes what is called the Basic Education Plan (BEP), which is the minimum education criteria,” he said.
But the committee did approve a document — which still needs to be ratified by NEA Portsmouth — that recognizes a set of criteria when making personnel decisions, including longevity in the system, a teacher’s effectiveness and evaluations, he said. “It also gives us a terrific balance between our management rights and the rights of our teachers,” he said.
Dr. Krizic said she was happy to see the dispute finally put to rest.
“This is one of the most significant issues that has caused a great deal of angst for our staff. By going forward and having this resolved, it is a sincere attempt to show respect for our teaching staff and also be in compliance with the BEP,” she said.
Now the two sides can get down to work at the bargaining table, with the dispute behind them.
“We are about to start negotiations with NEA Portsmouth, and this one of the cornerstones we wanted to try and get settled before we went there. It affects a lot of the language in the contract,” said Mr. Croston. “Portsmouth teachers have always gone out of their way to really overproduce, give us 110 percent. And the problem was, this policy came between that. This, I hope, sets a new bar for us all to look forward to.”