Contract negotiations with school secretaries stall, move to mediation


Contract negotiations between the Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) administration and the system’s 23 secretaries have reached an impasse. As a result, the groups have sought the assistance of a professional mediator, superintendent of schools James Weiss announced Monday.

“The negotiations with the Island’s educational secretaries have unfortunately moved to mediation even though the AISC [All-Island School Committee] has offered the secretaries a competitive wage and benefit package and continues to value their service,” Mr. Weiss said in a press release.

Union contracts for teachers, paraprofessionals, custodians, professional clerical workers (referred to as “secretaries” in the last contract), and cafeteria workers expired on June 20, 2010. The AISC began contract negotiations with the five bargaining units more than a year ago, and so far has reached multi-year agreements with teachers, the largest group, and cafeteria workers, the smallest. Negotiations are still moving forward with custodians and paraprofessionals.

Mr. Weiss met with reporters from The Times and the Vineyard Gazette in his office Monday to distribute the press release and answer questions.

A mediator appointed by the state Public Employee Labor Relations Board is scheduled to meet with the negotiation teams for the AISC and secretaries’ bargaining unit on October 26. If the two sides remain at an impasse despite mediation, the process could ultimately lead to arbitration; however, a decision would not be binding, Mr. Weiss said.

“This is a unique situation, entering into mediation with the secretaries,” he said at the meeting. “This is my second round of negotiations since I became superintendent, and we never came close to mediation before. Under the ground rules we have, if we’re at an impasse and enter mediation, at that time we can make a statement about what we’ve offered.”

Mr. Weiss deferred any questions about the secretaries’ position or information about their bargaining unit to their spokesman, Tisbury School secretary Marsha Shufrin.

“The secretaries do not want to comment,” Ms. Shufrin told The Times in a phone call Monday. When asked for the secretaries’ bargaining team members’ names, Ms. Shufrin said she did not want to provide that information or any information at all. She did offer to ask a representative from the Massachusetts Teachers Association to contact The Times.

The Times had not received a call as of press time.

Current package

In response to questions emailed from The Times, school business administrator Amy Tierney said the MVPS currently employ 23 secretaries, whose work hours equate to 22.35 full-time positions. Annual salaries range from $35,417 for a new secretary recently hired, to $52,908 for secretaries at the top step.

Ms. Tierney said the secretaries’ pay scale has 11 steps, with a five percent increase at each step. In the last contract, secretaries received a three percent annual COL increase for FY08, FY09, and FY10. They also negotiated for a new step, number eleven, which was added in FY09. Their last contract offered incentives to leave the indemnity plan.

Other benefits secretaries receive include $2,000 of life insurance, and longevity payments of $1,100 after 10 years, $1,300 after 15 years, and $1,700 after 20 years, Ms. Tierney said.

In addition to 13 paid legal holidays, secretaries receive 10 days of paid vacation after one year, 12 days after two years, 15 days after five years and 20 days after 10 years, which the proposed contract retains.

Secretaries also receive 15 days of sick time of which five days may be used as personal days. After working 15 years for MVPS, secretaries may buy back accumulated sick time at the rate of $15 per day for up to 150 days when they retire.

What’s on the table

In addition to step increases already in place for secretaries, the AISC proposal would give its secretaries a multi-year contract with cost of living increases similar to the ones teachers accepted, according to Mr. Weiss’s press release.

The new three-year contract the teachers approved in June and signed on September 22, provides a zero percent cost of living (COL) increase in fiscal year 2011 (FY11) which began July 1 and ends on June 30, 2011; a 2 percent increase in FY12; and a 2.75 percent increase in FY13.

Teachers agreed to give up the option of a Master Health/Master Medical (indemnity) plan in the second year of their contract. Teachers pay 25 percent of their health and dental insurance plans.

Those employed in the Island’s two regional school districts, the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School District and Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD), no longer have the indemnity plan option, which is more expensive than the healthcare insurance the MVPS offers as a member of the Cape Cod Municipal Health Group.

The secretaries’ last contract offered incentives to leave the indemnity health plan, and there are only three employees still on it, according to Ms. Tierney. Secretaries pay 25 percent of their health insurance and 50 percent of dental insurance.

“In the second year of the proposed contract, they would move from the indemnity health insurance plan to the less expensive PPO [preferred provider organization] or HMO [health maintenance organization] coverage as the teachers have already agreed to do,” Mr. Weiss’s press release said. “The secretaries will continue to enjoy salary and benefits that are equal to or better than those offered local town employees in similar positions.”

Negotiation challenges

Although the Island’s two teachers’ unions differ in membership, they negotiate as one bargaining unit in a group of five that includes the secretaries’ unit. Teachers from the Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury school districts belong to the Martha’s Vineyard Educators Association. Teachers in the high school and Up-Island regional school districts belong to the Martha’s Vineyard Regional Teachers and Educators Association.

Island teachers voted to ratify a tentative contract agreement at a meeting after school ended in June and the AISC at a meeting on July 22.

The AISC settled a multi-year contract, except for the terms of a COL increase, with the cafeteria workers’ bargaining unit in June. The contract covers 11 cafeteria workers employed in the Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury schools.

They agreed to a zero percent wage increase for FY11 and a 3 percent step increase for those at the top step, Ms. Tierney said. The contract stipulates negotiations will be reopened this fall to set the COL rate for FY12 and FY13.

Mr. Weiss recalled that after the last round of contract negotiations concluded in 2007, he had said the six months it took was “far too long.” This time, however, the AISC started the process more than a year ago, on July 1, 2009, and is still not done, he pointed out.

In a self-evaluation Mr. Weiss wrote for the AISC last spring, he said negotiations were especially challenging over the past year, given that requests for increases in salaries and benefits were up against a faltering national economy and tight town budgets.

The size of the AISC’s negotiation team complicated the process further, Mr. Weiss said. In addition to the traditional school committee team, there was a representative from each of the six towns, for a total of 12 people.

Working with such a large group made it difficult to get a quorum, he explained. As a result, some meetings had to be canceled and rescheduled, delaying progress.

Members on the AISC team in negotiation with the secretaries’ bargaining unit are Priscilla Sylvia of Oak Bluffs, David Rossi of Edgartown, Susan Parker of Chilmark, Roxanne Ackerman of Aquinnah, and Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter of West Tisbury.

Town representatives are Oak Bluffs selectman Ron DiOrio, finance committee members Richard Williams of Chilmark and Fred Condon of Edgartown, and Joan Borkow, the West Tisbury selectmen’s appointee.

As a whole, taxpayers devote generous sums to school costs, which annually represent the most significant claim on town operating budgets. For example, in fiscal year 2010, that ended on June 30, taxpayers spent $40.8 million on the public school system Island-wide for about 2,034 students. The Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School added another $3.49 million to that total, with 180 students enrolled.