By PAUL J. SPETRINI
NORTH KINGSTOWN—The morning after one of the most hostile school committee meetings in recent memory, North Kingstown School Supt. Dr. Philip Auger took a moment Wednesday morning to reflect on the preceding two days in his district.
In a span of 48 hours, Auger had attempted to negotiate a last-minute contract with the North Kingstown Educational Support Professionals (ESP) Union; tried to ward off a potential strike that would delay the start of school; accepted the reality that the work stoppage would happen after ESP representatives appeared in front of NK High School with picket signs; cancelled classes and filed an injunction to force school employees back to class.
More important than all this action, Auger said, was what the future holds.
The act of outsourcing custodial work in North Kingstown to Cleveland-based GCA Services, the core issue that sparked the backlash between the ESP and the district when it was approved by Auger and the school committee in June, remains a point of contention.
Auger and the committee argue that the move will save an already budget-crunched district $600K per year. ESP professionals, meanwhile, contend it should have been negotiated in contract discussions and worry about what precedent it could set in future talks.
For now, the district and union will attempt to settle the issue in court. In the meantime, however, both sides say they want to focus on what’s more important-education.
This may be easier said than done after the events of Monday and Tuesday.
After an eight-hour negotiating session Monday afternoon in which both sides say they were able to make concessions on every labor issue except the outsourcing decision, Auger and his team reached impasse with ESP representatives around 9 p.m.
“We had difficult discussions but they were productive; we were making a lot of headway,” Auger said. “I was really feeling that we’ve got something.”
Ultimately, however, neither side would budge on custodial outsourcing and the issue derailed any chance of an agreement being reached before the start of school.
Uncertain of whether epresentatives would strike in support of the district’s 26 former custodians—20 of whom have since been rehired by GCA at what the union says are much lower salaries—Auger felt he had to wait until the next morning to decide about cancelling classes.
That decision was made when ESP representatives appeared in front of the high school with picket signs and a district-wide email went out at 6:38 a.m. with the closure announcement.
By then, some children were already on buses en route to class.
On the picket line, ESP representatives held signs supporting custodians and teachers and, according to Larry Purtill, President of the National Education Association, the demonstration was the union’s way of sending a message.
“It was more than symbolic in terms of ‘we’ve had enough’,” Purtill said Tuesday night. “We’ve had enough with the outsourcing of custodians; we’ve had enough with not having a contract and this is our way of making people realize that we’ve had enough.”
With classes cancelled and the threat of an extended work stoppage looming, Auger said, the district wasted no time seeking an injunction so school could start Wednesday.
It was a move the union anticipated, Purtill said, and by late Tuesday afternoon, Superior Court Judge Brian P. Stern announced that an agreement to begin classes Wednesday had been reached.
Disruption and discord were the order of the day at Tuesday night’s school committee meeting as a crowd packed NK High Schoo, demanding to be heard (see story below.)
Meanwhile, Auger says he remains committed to reaching an agreement with the ESP on a new contract and has no intention of “getting rid of the union”, as some argued Tuesday.
“I didn’t set out to be the face of union-busting in Rhode Island,” he said. “I think NEA is trying to make me out that way because we’re the first school district other than Providence” to persue outsourcing.
“I don’t have anything against the unions. I really don’t ... but it’s been made clear to me by the citizens of the town that they don’t want to pay more in taxes and they want us to find ways to do what we’re doing more efficiently.”
Representatives from the union say they worry about how much progress can be made when the school district has already acted to outsource custodial work.
Can the relationship be repaired? Both sides think so.
“It’s up to the people involved to make that happen,” Purtill said. “I’ve been doing this long enough when [acrimonious situations occured] but you have to set that aside and go forward. One of the ways of doing that is sitting down and discussing the mutual issues that you have to resolve.
“But when you get a group that says I’m privatizing no matter what, there’s no leeway really so the superintendent needs to reach out and the teachers’ union needs to reach back because it works both ways.”