2009-08-27 / Front Page

School Committee opposed to bill that would extend expired contracts

By Eileen M. Daly

On Wednesday, Aug. 19, the Jamestown School Committee voiced its opposition to S0713, a bill that allows for the extension of teacher’s contracts after they have expired until a new agreement can be reached, during a discussion of pending legislation. The bill passed 32-2 in the R.I. Senate and is currently waiting for a House vote.

State Representative Deb Ruggiero joined the school committee at its regular monthly meeting, along with Town Administrator Bruce Keiser and Town Council members Bill Kelly and Mike White. Senator Teresa Paiva-Weed was scheduled to attend, but cancelled due to a family illness.

Chairperson Cathy Kaiser, the school committee’s legislative liaison, began the discussion by questioning what the legislature hopes to “solve” with S0713 and other educational bills being considered this fall.

“The proponents of binding arbitration are saying that the process will save school districts money and eliminate work to rule. But there are a lot of fees with binding arbitration. There have been three to five cases of binding arbitration in Newport. With two solicitors billing 200 to 500 hours at $200 an hour, that is a lot of attorneys’ fees. Jamestown doesn’t have the luxury of having an attorney on staff. Small communities will be hurt by binding arbitration,” she said.

Kaiser went on to refute the effect binding arbitration would purportedly have on the work-to-rule process (work to rule is an action teachers sometimes take when negotiations are stalled, calling for strict adherence to the contract while refusing all other duties such as coaching or extracurricular activities.).

“Binding arbitration does not preclude work to rule,” she said.

She also refuted the idea that these bills would prevent teacher strikes, something House Majority Leader Gordon Fox referred to in a recent Providence Journal article.

“Rhode Island law already prohibits teacher strikes and there have only been a handful of attempts to strike in the past decade,” she said.

Superintendent Marcia Lukon also spoke out against S0713 and binding arbitration. She responded to Deb Ruggiero’s statement, “House leadership has asked us to come up with a solution that puts finality to the question ‘What happens when there is no contract?’” Lukon said, “The House is going to the unions for solutions and I have a real problem with that. This would essentially take the budget out of the hands of the taxpayers. It’s bad for kids, bad for taxpayers and bad for towns.”

Lukon went on to express her view that more information needs to be obtained before passing these bills.

“These are very serious bills. They may be here forever and have a huge impact on education. Why not appoint a study commission?” she said.

Ruggiero responded that S0713 still needs to go to committee and that public discussions are warranted before action is considered on any of these bills.

“Something this big cannot be done in one day. We need to talk to a lot of different people in the community and have public discussions. This could affect not only this community, but also the other 36 communities across the state,” Ruggiero said.

School Committee members B.J. Whitehouse and Julia Held were also opposed to the proposed legislation.

“The stated reasons for these bills do not make sense. Unions are trying to get these bills passed when towns are under real financial stress. There is no way around this. It is clear that towns cannot support these kinds of contracts anymore. Any discussion among legislators needs to consider the motivation behind these bills,” Held said.

Whitehouse said that school committees’ independence will be threatened with the passage of bills such as these. “The potential is there for someone to be telling school committees what to do and what to spend. Why would we even be here? If an arbitrator is going to be saying, ‘You have to do this or that,’ well, that’s just plain wrong,” Whitehouse said.

The Senate is in recess and is due back in session Sept. 2. Until then, it is unknown when or if any of these bills will be brought to the floor, Ruggiero said. She promised to keep the school committee informed and to continue to listen to all sides before making decisions.

In other business:

The committee approved the appointment of Laurie George as grade 6 teacher, Amy Simoes as grade 4 special education teacher, Dr. Lisa Wholey as a part-time school psychologist and Jayson Juhnowski as grade 4 teacher (one year appointment). None of these constitute new positions, according to Superintendent Lukon.

The next meeting of the Jamestown School Committee will be Sept. 17. The Sept. 3 workshop meeting has been cancelled. All meetings are held at 7 p.m. in the Lawn School library.

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