Portsmouth teachers still don’t have a new contract

PHS class schedule is sticking point in negotiations

By Jim McGaw
Posted 2/12/20

PORTSMOUTH — More than five months after their three-year contract with the School Committee expired, teachers still don’t have a new collective bargaining agreement.

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Portsmouth teachers still don’t have a new contract

PHS class schedule is sticking point in negotiations

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — More than five months after their three-year contract with the School Committee expired, teachers still don’t have a new collective bargaining agreement.

Members of NEA Portsmouth are not showing up to school without a contract, however. Although the union’s contract expired Aug. 31, 2019, teachers are working under the terms of that labor pact due to a contract continuation bill that became law last year.

Still, both sides said they hope to agree on a new labor contract sooner, rather than later.

“I don’t want to get too deeply into it, but we’re as close to (an agreement) as we’ve ever been,” said union co-president Joe Cassady, a teacher at Portsmouth High School, adding that many tentative agreements are already in place. “We’ve already signed off on a lot.”

Emily Copeland, chairwoman of the School Committee, said the board has an excellent relationship with teachers, but it’s done its “due diligence” during negotiations and has already compromised to meet much of the union’s language, “including including offering a 7-percent raise over three years.”

Sticking point: PHS schedule

Both sides agree the main sticking point is the class schedule at Portsmouth High School and a mandate from the R.I. Department of Education that high school students receive at least 330 instructional minutes per day — which they are currently not at PHS. The high school currently uses a block schedule, but a waterfall schedule — not a popular option — has been floated as one way to meet the state’s requirement.

The School Committee would like PHS teachers to add a teaching section, which would not only meet RIDE’s mandate, but would also allow students more choices of course offerings, Ms. Copeland said.

“We’ve been hearing from kids since last spring: They want more electives, more offerings,” she said. “These problems are very intertwined and I’m not sure the community has understood all the various aspects of that.”

“From out point of view, that was never really a consideration,” Mr. Cassady said of the proposal to add an extra instructional period, as opposed to a duty period.

He said in December, however, the School Improvement Committee proposed a compromise involving an alternate schedule. “From our point of view, that answered all of (the school board’s) concerns,” Mr. Cassady said. The proposal was sent to the school board and the union is waiting to hear back, he said.

Ms. Copeland said as of Monday, “We haven’t seen anything yet,” while acknowledging there’s been “some confusion as to where we left things.”

There are other reasons for the delay in getting a contract settled, both sides say. 

“We are technically in mediation, but we haven’t met with a mediator for about a month and a half. There are a lot of moving points and we just couldn’t find a time to schedule,” Mr. Cassady said.

Part of it has to do with the fact that the mediator took time off for vacation, and that the school district has been dealing with the transition to a new superintendent, Thomas Kenworthy. 

End in sight?

Ms. Copeland said a negotiation subcommittee meeting was held last Thursday, and the school board has an offer it will sending to the union.

“I think our next step is to try and arrange a meeting between the union and the negotiation committee to see if we can work out some details and hopefully they’ll have something to bring back to their members,” she said. “We’ve gone into mediation. We hope to settle the contract soon, but if mediation and negotiation fails we will be entering into arbitration, but we hope to avoid that.”

The “end of February,” she said, will be a better time to see “where we’re both at.”

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