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RTM Approves Teachers Contract [UPDATE]

The Representative Town Meeting on Monday evening endorsed the three-year teachers contract, giving final approval for the largest piece of the town's budget for the next three years.

Update 11:30 a.m.:

Elizabeth Hagerty-Ross, chairperson of the Board of Education, and the Darien Public Schools administration early Tuesday morning released a copy of the slide presentation she gave to the Representative Town Meeting on Monday evening. It is attached to this article.

Original article:

The Representative Town Meeting on Monday evening approved well over a quarter of the Darien town budget—not only for this coming fiscal year, but for each of the two fiscal years after that—in one vote approving the teacher's contract.

The vote was 74-4, with 3 abstentions, but despite the overwhelming vote to approve, the discussion was marked by little enthusiasm for the contract, which will help drive growth in the town budget and which could increase taxes.

Lois Schneider, chairman of the RTM Education Committee, briefly mentioned that members of her committee wanted to support the town's teachers, but she emphasized features of the contract that would save the town money, including the adding of smaller annual "step" increases in the wage schedule that would mean smaller raises for some teachers, and the adoption of health savings plans rather than the traditional preferred provider organizations (PPOs).

Other supporters of the contract said they thought the town was unlikely to do better if it rejected the proposal. A rejection by the RTM would have meant binding arbitration.

Liz Mao, chairman of the Board of Finance, told the RTM: "We [the Board of Finance] reviewed the terms, and it is a realistic proposal. [...] We could end up with a lot worse than what we have now" if the contract decision was made by arbitrators, she said.

If the RTM rejected the contract and if arbitration then resulted in a new contract that the Representative Town Meeting also didn't like, a two-thirds vote of the RTM to reject the second version would result in the matter being kicked back to arbitrators again, Board of Education Chairman Elizabeth Hagerty-Ross told the RTM. In that case, the arbitrators' decision would be final, she said.

As a whole, the 460 employees covered by the Darien Education Association contract would be paid an estimated 1.25 percent more in the first year of the contract, and another 2.02 percent more in the second year, although the wage increases for each of those years wouldn't start until each fiscal year was half-way through. The raises for the third fiscal year, with an overall increase of 3.36 percent at the beginning of the third fiscal year on July 1, 2014.

These percentages apply to all teacher wages as a whole, not to individual teachers, who will receive different percentages depending on what steps they are at. The vast majority of members of the union are teachers, although the union represents all workers in Darien Public Schools—except certain administrators—who are certified by the state Department of Education.

Under other provisions of the new contract, almost the entire teachers corps will move from traditional PPO insurance into health savings accounts starting July 1 of this year.

Hagerty-Ross pointed out that Darien has one of the lowest health insurance costs of any school district in the state because the town has aggressively shopped for better prices, with the cooperation of the teachers union.

The town also pays a lower percentage of health care insurance premiums than do other towns, Hagerty Ross pointed out. In Darien, teachers will pay 17 to 19 percent of the cost of their premiums. Under the new Greenwich teachers contract, the teachers' share is 10 to 12 percent. In Weston, it's 13 to 14 percent; in Wilton, it's 14 to 16 percent.

RTM members who voiced opposition to the contract included Jim Cameron of District 4, who pointed out how short a teacher's school year is and the large number of paid sick days that teachers have: 15, in addition to five personal days.

"This is a wonderful contract, but I think the town cannot afford it," he said. "Everybody has taken a hit except the Board of Education."

Edward Tierney, an RTM member from District 1, said he worried about the fiscal impact of the 3 percent wage increase in the third year as well as the rising cost of health insurance—with or without health savings accounts. He said he'd rather take his chances in arbitration than approve a teachers contract that would add even more spending pressure to future budgets.

Jack Davis, an RTM member from District 5, said the contract appeared to be "the best that we can get right now." He pointed out that with retirements and other teachers who might leave Darien Public Schools for one reason or another, the percentage wage increases should be viewed as a maximum, not a likely increase in the schools budget.

The schools budget takes up about 74 percent of the town budget, and about 85 percent of the schools budget is personnel costs, Hagerty-Ross said. Of that, about half is covered by the contract, said Heather Shea, a member of the Board of Education. That means the cost of the wages covered by the contract is still more than the entire town budget that is outside Darien Public Schools.

Jim Coley January 24, 2012 at 01:49 PM
While I have no specific knowledge of this contract, I suggest key town officials responsible for negotiating all non-private sector contracts where the taxpayer is ultimately on the hook for future pension costs immediately study these contracts and come back to the electorate for full disclosure on their long term plans. As a matter of background, historically municipalities have been to focused on the current costs of labor contracts and often forget that the growing liabilities in the pension contracts are what are destroying towns (and States) budgets. (For some background, read Michael Lewis' latest book call Boomerang, last chapter on California.) Essentially those negotiating municipal contracts often times are either (1) ill-equipped to fully grasp the long term consequences of these contracts or (2) in some cases, politically unmotivated to actually address and if necessary cap or modify pension plans as it would affect their re-election. The second point is probably not a factor in Darien but would certainly be issues as the State level.
Jim Coley January 24, 2012 at 01:50 PM
The current fiscal policies set by the Fed is only compouonding the issue. First low interest rates have the undesired effect of lowering investment returns in fixed income instruments. Most corporate and public pension plans have a implied investment return that is set by the actuarial service, and most have been around 8%. Where can an investment advisor earn that except in the most riskiest asset classes in an environment where the long term risk free rate is 2%? Compounding to this problem is that many pension plans with older work forces will invest upwards of 60% of their investments in fixed income. The second problem is compounded by the fact of this Fed environment of low rates that flattens the yield curve and causes nominal rates fall, the cost of the liabilities dramatically rises.
Jim Coley January 24, 2012 at 01:51 PM
So the entire US pension industry is faced with decreased investments at a time when its liabilities have skyrocketed--unintended consequences of the Fed trying to counteract the housing bubble. There are many examples of this problem just south to us in NYC with the firemen, police and transit workers pension plans all poorly designed and until recently, no one thought to look there. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Corporate America was face with a similar problem, and while the rates environment was different (much higher rates, much higher inflation), they too had pension costs that were exploding thereby threatening their fiscal stability. This led to many defined benefit plans being closed and a movement towards defined contribution plans like 401(k) plans.
Jim Coley January 24, 2012 at 01:55 PM
We should as a town be proactive before our AAA rating is threaten and our Mill rate has to spike to accommodate rising costs.
John Sini January 24, 2012 at 02:14 PM
Jim, I think you nailed it -- it's a big time state problem. While I share your frustration with the outcome, as a new member of the RTM’s Finance & Budget committee I quickly learned that there is not much our BOE and/or RTM could do to further mitigate teacher benefit inflation in the Darien Public Schools. This is a direct result of the negotiating confines set by the state. Just witness the very recent outcome the Wilton school system's final contract with its teachers for proof of the problem (which the Wilton BOE forced into arbitration). Despite the fact that Wilton’s BOE tried to take a hard line, Wilton’s arbitrated contract is worse-off for its taxpayers that the negotiated final contract in Darien. I just hope voters continue to realize that the collective bargaining, arbitration and approval arrangement among teachers set by state mandate is a very flawed process in dire need of change. In essence, towns across this state are forced to negotiate contracts with one hand tied behind their backs. Perhaps such a realization will eventually spark voters to take their fight to Hartford to finally allow necessary state-wide changes. This is exactly the what the battle being waged in Wisconsin is all about.
Jim Coley January 24, 2012 at 03:05 PM
John, Thanks for note. I was note aware of the specifics with the teachers, but what about other pension plans. Is the collective bargaining of these plans for pensions done at the state level or local level? I am not aware of any specifics with Darien but I think this is an important topic to flesh out. We might not be able to influence the CT issues (other than through our ability to vote) but local issues we should analyze and address. Perhaps the RTM can take the lead here. . . .
David Gurliacci (Editor) January 24, 2012 at 04:06 PM
It appears that many of the details that went into elected officials' decisions on the teachers contract have still not been made public, even though it would be simple and easy and cost nothing to email to the press the actual documents that Darien's elected officials used in making this decision. At last night's RTM meeting I learned that there exists information on comparisons of some of the elements of this contract with what other towns in our area have negotiated (specifically salary increases and percentages of health insurance premiums that employees pay); an analysis by the Board of Education's attorney on the risks involved in rejecting the contract; and documentation requested by members of the RTM's Finance & Budget Committee. What else is out there? Probably answers to just about every question that a resident of Darien would have. Why hasn't this information been made public already? Why wasn't it put on the town website or the Board of Education's website before any votes were taken? Why didn't RTM members send it to any of the four news organizations in town? It takes almost no time at all to send a document by email, and hardly much more time for a news organization to post it to a website. When I've asked for public documents in Darien, officials have been responsive in getting them to me. But I first have to know the documents exist. John, would you please email me the documents the Finance Committee received?
John Sini January 24, 2012 at 04:09 PM
Unfortunately, I believe the teachers' retirement benefits are largely controlled by the state -- and funded through state mandated mechanisms. Call me an optimist, but I'm a big believer that common sense will ultimately prevail (although it will take much time). Parent's throughout this state (a.k.a., voters/taxpayers) will continue to realize that the contract negotiation process is flawed and unfunded state mandates are unsustainable -- all which are beginning to come at a direct expense to the quality of their children's education. If things don't change, taxpayers will continue to flee to more reasonable states (in retirement or sooner), and change will eventually be forced upon Connecticut legislators simply because of the lack of revenue to fund union benefits and unfunded mandates. In the meantime, the good news is the town does directly control its annual education budget process. Needless to say, this will spark some very vigorous and enlightening debate over the remaining 15% of the annual school budget in coming months!
Debra Ritchie January 24, 2012 at 04:27 PM
Yes John you are correct. Darien's teachers pension is funded through the state. Locally we fund only the pensions of our administrators and non teaching staff. The state statues clearly favor the teachers and their representatives in this process. And yes that is the tip of the iceberg since we are now dealing with unfunded state mandates that were intended to be 100% funded. David - as to your question regarding additional information. As a member of the press could you claim FOI to obtain this information? As a member of F&B committee of the RTM, I would also like to see additional information. Our committee was provided with the information in the RTM packet and the information that you find online. We did not receive this additional information to which you refer.
David Gurliacci (Editor) January 24, 2012 at 04:43 PM
Yes, I can file an FOI request. I will. The chairman of the RTM Finance and Budget Committee said last night that members requested more information at their last meeting, and they received it. I've posted to this article all of the documents I've received about this. Are there any others in the RTM packet that I don't have here? If not, I'll get them from the Town Clerk's office today.
David Gurliacci (Editor) January 24, 2012 at 05:13 PM
John, Thanks for emailing me the information received by Finance & Budget Committee members regarding comparisons of compensation teachers receive in various towns. I've just attached that PDF document to the article. I realize that some information regarding negotiations should not become public at certain points, but by the time the committee received that documentation there was no legal reason for it not to be public. I also realize that it's not so much the job of RTM members to make these documents public (although it would be a useful public service to do so), as it is for other public officials. I can't be at every meeting, in part because so many of Darien's public meetings are scheduled for the same nights.
John Sini January 24, 2012 at 05:43 PM
David, In my email to you with the comparison attached, you misconstrued my comments related to public documents. As I explained in the email, as a RTM member I am not supplied the finer details of the contract negotiations, which includes individual personnel costs, seniority comparisons from town to town, etc. Therefore, I certainly can't give you the details if I don't have them. I'd like to make it crystal clear that by absolutely no means did I imply in my email to you that that the salary comparison document supplied to the F&B committee was a non-public document.
David Gurliacci (Editor) January 24, 2012 at 06:06 PM
Thanks for clarifying that. My point has always been that public officials can make public -- very easily -- every document (except for certain documents that protect the privacy of employees) that they use in decisionmaking. I'm not expecting individual RTM members to take on that task (although I asked you in this particular case because I knew you were reading the thread). I do want to make it clear to everyone reading this that it is extremely easy for public officials with "publicly available" documents to actually make those documents available to the public (at essentially no cost and with hardly any expenditure of time). If they so choose.
Jim McCann January 25, 2012 at 03:21 PM
John Thanks for some outstanding insights here.....can I ask what your advice is in terms of who and how we should contact in "Hartford" to begin to responsibly advocate for real accountability and change? Drives me nuts when all this great talent and citizenship we have on our Boards and in our elected officials, can only shrug their shoulders and throw up their hands and say "our hands are tied and it could be a lot worse". Appreciate your comment and any advice. Thanks!
John Sini January 25, 2012 at 03:54 PM
Thanks. I guess I'd start with Bob Duff and Terrie Wood, and also reach out to Gov. Malloy.
Tony Imbimbo January 25, 2012 at 06:52 PM
The mediation process could be improved or more transparent, but the results, in this case, didn't seem unreasonable. Like many in Darien, we moved here because of its excellent school system. I don't begrudge Darien's teachers their modest increases in salary, which are in line with, or below, inflation. Our teachers are paid in line with similar CT school districts -- and they pay more of their own health care cost. Also, we have very good teachers. If we did ever decide to stop investing in education, we'd see an exodus of families, and a loss in property values, and fewer opportunities for our children in college and beyond. However, there are 2 components of the budget that are increasing at an alarming rate: Health Insurance premiums, and Special Education costs due to reduced reimbursements from the state. We've seen about a 9-to-10% average increase in health insurance premiums in each of the past four or five years at least. We now pay more in health insurance than we pay to run all of Middlesex Middle School. The cost goes up by about $900,000 to $1 million per year, and because we're negotiating with a state-regulated insurance cartel, we have a limited ability to control these large rate increases. I suppose all these things -- health insurance costs, special ed reimbursements, and the mediation process -- may be worth discussing with state legislators.

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