2012-08-30 / Front Page

Strike delays start of NK school year

Auger: Union rhetoric has been untrue, disrespectful

School began Wednesday after a labor strike halted the first day of classes Tuesday for North Kingstown public schools after school officials and union representatives failed to reach an agreement Monday night.

The strike affected 188 Jamestown teens who are enrolled at North Kingstown High School for the upcoming school year.

The union on strike was the North Kingstown Educational Support Professional Association, a coalition that represents the district’s maintenance, custodial and transportation workers. The strike stems from the North Kingstown School Committee’s decision to lay off 26 custodial positions in June. The jobs were outsourced to a private company, a move that drastically cut pay and benefits. According to Larry Purtill, president of the National Education Association of Rhode Island, the workers ended up taking a 30 percent salary reduction.

Purtill told WPRO’s Morning News that union negotiators were prepared to stay all night at Monday’s meeting to work out a deal. “A school committee representative came in and said they were leaving, they were tired,” he said. “I think when you are coming down to the night before school opens, 10:45 p.m. is pretty early to be walking out.”

North Kingstown School Committee Chairwoman Kim Page told WPRO that she was surprised by the union’s decision to strike. “We said think about this, come back to us in the morning. At that point it seemed if everything was fine and I woke up this morning, got my kids ready for school, and got my camera in my hand.”

She said that’s when she got the call that there wasn’t going to be a first day of school Tuesday.

North Kingstown Superintendent Phil Auger wrote in an email blast Tuesday morning that “rhetoric” from the state’s education association has been disrespectful and untrue.

“Members of the North Kingstown School Committee and I continued to bargain in good faith, we were committed to staying all night if need be, and we made significant concessions on every issue other than our decision to privatize custodial services,” he wrote. “As for this issue, we feel that it is best to respectfully agree to disagree and handle the issue in court. [The] decision to strike doesn’t make this difficult work any easier.”

Auger said many parents were curious about the decision to cancel school at the 11th hour, saying some students were already dressed and waiting for the bus when the call was made to cancel school. Auger said that the administration had no choice but to wait for the picket signs to show up before they could call the day. He said that if the school department on Monday night decided to cancel Tuesday’s first day of school, the union had plans to reverse its decision and come to work “simply to make the administration look bad.”

Auger continued: “Also, we would then forgo our ability to take legal action to force them back to work tomorrow and the cycle would continue. This group intentionally waited for high school students to actually be on buses before striking. It is a cheap tactic, and unfortunately it holds all of our kids hostage, mine included.”

Said Purtill, “I think ultimately the union needed to take a stand.”

Page said that the school committee would not reverse its decision to privatize custodial jobs. Auger filed an injunction in court, and after meeting with Judge Brian Stern’s chamber in Superior Court in Wakefield Tuesday, union members and teachers agreed to return to school. Lawyers say the two sides have reached an agreement.

Teachers and coaches respected the picket lines Monday and did not show up for work. According to Bill Piva, assistant coach for the high school’s varsity football team and Jamestown’s recreation director, Tuesday’s scrimmage was canceled due to the strike.

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