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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.

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 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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