WOOD RIVER JUNCTION — At Tuesday evening's School Committee meeting, preceding the public forum, George Kenney, Chair of the Chariho School Committee, read aloud the School Committee's press release entitled “Negotiations Statement #1” to a packed auditorium of over 300 teachers, students, parents, and supporters. Earlier that evening, teachers had participated in a protest to voice their concerns about salary freezes and cuts in longevity and master degree pay. The teachers have been working without a contract since August 31, 2012.
The School Committee's statement included a commitment to “approving a collective bargaining agreement with NEA Chariho that will (1) encourage students to achieve at high levels, (2) treat our employees respectfully and fairly, and (3) be responsive to overburdened taxpayers.” Also included was a short explanation (from the School Committee's perspective) of the circumstances that led to the lack of progress regarding negotiations between the School Committee and NEA Chariho since January 2012. The School Committee also suggested waiving the negotiations' confidentiality agreement and to make both the NEA Chariho's proposal and the School Committee's proposal public so that “members of NEA Chariho, taxpayers, and citizens of the three towns” could make an “informed assessment of the two.” (The complete statement is available at www.chariho.k12.ri.us .)
The public forum followed. Robert Mayne, President NEA (National Education Association) Chariho, and a math teacher at Chariho Regional High School, was the first to speak.
“It's amazing some of the things you hear when every single time we go through negotiations. Rumors are exactly that: Rumors. Your allegation that we refused to bargain is totally untrue. Let me fill you in because you missed an important step. On August 20th we decided not to come back on the 21st but you neglected to tell everybody why. We requested mediation. We felt that negotiations were not going anywhere therefore we went through the process and said that we would like to have mediation. Would it make logical sense to you to meet on the 21st when we've already declared that there's no way we can get to a resolution and we need mediation? It doesn't make sense to me.”
“Union leadership has only released information pertaining to the withholding of wages related to longevity and advanced degrees,” continued Mayne. “In addition, we have also released information pertaining to the committee's decision not to follow, in our eyes, Title 16 of Rhode Island law, which requires advancement on steps from one year to the next. We have only put information out there that is accurate.”
Mayne believed that the School Committee was trying to divert attention away from the issues.
“You decided to disrespect every one of the educators in this district by slapping them in the face and stealing from their wallets. Yet you still deny that you actually gave them a pay cut. I think some people behind me have some pay stubs and would like to give you a math lesson,” Mayne said.
“As for your request to negotiate in open session, I believe we should let the mediation process continue. Bargaining in public will not be conducive to reaching an agreement,” Mayne said. He said he believed that both sides want to arrive at an agreement.
“I think we need to work together to get to an agreement and stop all the posturing politically.”
The next speaker was a parent from Richmond whose daughter attends Chariho High School. Her daughter, who is now a senior would like to become an art teacher but is reconsidering her career choice because she doesn't believe teachers are getting paid what they are worth. “Please consider giving a fair contract to teachers,” the mother said.
“Let's tell it like it really is, please. When I am bringing home less money than I did last year, the math shows me it s is decrease not a pay freeze,” said the next speaker, a female teacher who had been teaching at Chariho since 1982. She also commented that the respectful, working relationship (with the School Committee) had deteriorated into mistrust and hostility.
Next up was Larry Purtill, President of NEA Rhode Island, who asserted that the School Committee had broken the law when it did not go through the mediation process.
“I don't need a calculator to figure this out .When you're making less money in your paycheck this year than last year, it's a pay cut, it's not a pay freeze and if you'd followed the law, it would have actually been a pay freeze. I'm going to suggest that you stop this, reverse your actions, and negotiate the contract.
“Asking to bargain in public session is a delay tactic. There's a reason why no one bargains in public session because you can't get anything done,” said Purtill. “You have one of the best school districts in the state. Don't destroy it. Do what's best for this district and reverse your actions.”
The crowd rose to its feet, clapping and shouting, raising protest signs high.
A student named Jay, from the class of 2012, approached the microphone and asked the teachers to stand.
“I'd like to take a moment to take a look around. Without these people, your sons and daughters would not be where they are now if it were not for these teachers. Give them a round of applause.”
The crowd applauded loudly once again.
“The phrase 'the value of a teacher' gets thrown around a lot,” said Susan Munson, class of 2008, who was up next. “It means something different to everyone who uses it. The value of a teacher, the noblest of professions, cannot and should not be quantified, to do so is to lessen the importance of a teacher.”
The next speaker was Tom Gilligan from Charlestown, parent of 3 Chariho grads, spouse of a teacher, father of a current teacher, and a postal worker, who commented that although the post office lost $10 billion last year, it continues to honor its previous contracts until a new one is signed.
“I find it ironic that as leaders of the school district you require teachers to be leaders, to follow guidelines and expectations, to do the right thing everyday and yet you are not doing that,” said Mr. Gilligan.
“My God, what have you done?” asked a retired teacher named Tony who is now a resident of South Kingstown. He chastised the School Committee for not respecting Chariho's teachers.
“You have not acted professionally and you are undeserving of (the teachers') respect,” he said.
“The charge of a school committee is to make huge educational and financial decisions that affect the lives of thousands of students. And frankly, the vast majority of school committee members are just not qualified to do that job. How many undergraduate and graduate years of education are we looking at here? How many years of classroom experience are we looking at here? How many years of dealing with multi-million dollar budgets are we looking at here? Probably not many. Being on a school committee is not something to do on a Tuesday night,” said Tony.
Ron, a Hopkinton resident, compared the teachers' lack of negotiating power to the silencing of bullying and rape victims.
“I really look at this as power. We used to tell kids who were being bullied, 'It's just the high school experience, you'll graduate soon.' We used to tell them to be quiet, to take it. We used to say that also to women who were raped. We used to say, 'Just be quiet, get on with your life, just forget about it.' Just because you have the power to do something, doesn't morally allow you to do it.”
“It would be nice not to have unions,” Ron continued, “but the reason unions step up is to protect their people from bullying, from people like you that wield the power that they don't have.”
A gentleman from who had two children graduate from Chariho High School and suggested that the School Committee “trim from the top and give it to these people who deserve it.”
Joe Alexander, a Chariho High School student, said he believed in paying fair wages to teachers and that the School Committee should honor its contracts.
Next up was Elise, a teacher who also had a daughter in Chariho Middle School. She described how other school districts saw Chariho as a leader in education. “We want to know what Chariho's doing because we want to do it, too,” she said.
Barbara, who said she comes to all the School Committee meetings, expressed that she believed in cutting the budget but not the teachers' salaries.
Debbie, a Chariho graduate and teacher, talked about the evenings and weekends that teachers spend grading papers and writing lesson plans. She described common core as “50 shades of boring” and not something that most people would want to read on the weekends, but that teachers do because “we couldn't do anything greater than teaching.”
“One word: Disrespect,” said Kim Dagel, a Health Phys Ed teacher in Richmond. As she addressed the School Committee, she said, “For those of you who are there for the children, I commend you. For the rest of you, I am sad for you.”
After everyone had spoken during the public forum, Mr. Kenney thanked everyone for their comments. The teachers and their supporters filed out quietly and the School Committee finished the remaining business on the agenda.