Saugerties superintendent Seth Turner. (photo by Dion Ogust)

Saugerties superintendent Seth Turner. (photo by Dion Ogust)

The strained relationship between Saugerties teachers and the district went public last week, with Superintendent Seth Turner issuing an exasperated memo to all district employees taking the union to task for its “refusal to recognize the economic realities of the time, and its unwillingness to place the interests of the students ahead of the financial interests of its members.”

The Saugerties Teachers’ Association (STA) public relation specialist Ken Franzblau fired back: “Negotiating with [the School Board] is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.”

The STA’s contract expired in 2010. Since then, negotiations have not gone well, with lengthy intervals of non-communication, and various mediators and fact-finders called in to try to bring the two sides to agreement.

Turner said the board’s offer was more generous than the terms of the previous contract, and because of that, it would result in additional layoffs or a smaller reserve fund; but the offer was made in an attempt to conclude the process despite these facts. The offer included a .5 percent annual salary increase over the next three years, an increase in health care contributions from 10 percent to 13 percent, a $25 increase to the teacher’s welfare fund for the next two years, and the stipulation that all grievances and possible litigation be dropped. The main grievance relates to a threat by the district to demand restitution from teachers who accepted family health insurance through the district when a spouse could have received it in another job, in violation of the union contract. There are additional outstanding labor grievances that would also be dropped.

Franzblau said Turner’s memo shows only part of the story. He said the union already agreed to no salary increases in 2010-11 and 2011-12. He said the union’s proposal for a five-year contract came to four percent; .8 percent per year. He said the board has hindered negotiations by changing its terms, first asking for a 12.5 percent increase in health insurance contributions, then 13 percent. (Hence the Jell-O comment.)

“We were supposed to meet in November with the conciliator,” said Franzblau. “The district cancelled literally the day before. When we did meet with the conciliator last week, we made the first proposal, again reducing our offer from the previous proposal we had made, and they came back looking for even more give-backs, which are just not justified by their financial position.”

On the subject of dropping any litigation, which the board said would “avoid unnecessary legal expenses on both sides,” Franzblau had this to say: “We just can’t withdraw things unilaterally… we have a legal responsibility to process those. These come from the district failing to follow the contract. To say these expenses are unnecessary totally mistakes the purpose of the grievance procedure and takes them off the hook for their violations in the first place.”

Franzblau further noted that “Part of the problem is they negotiate through the press to a significant degree, and try to turn the taxpayers against the teachers. We should all be on the same side of this.”

Turner, when asked if going public with the terms would hurt the trust between the two parties and make coming to an agreement even more difficult, said in an email: “I do not feel that issues of trust are a consideration, if what is being said is accurate.”

Asked whether he released the information to sway public opinion, Turner said, “I think the general public already understands that we are in a depressed economy, and that the median salary of individuals and families in the area have declined, while the cost of living has grown. Affordability has to be part of the discussion! This is not done as a method to prompt the union to do anything—outside of acknowledging that negotiating in 2013 is a different game than 2003.”

For fiscal issues, Turner cites a $400,000 reduction in state aid in the governor’s proposed budget, a $100,000 increase in health insurance and $400,000 increase in pension costs.

“They’re talking about their retirement costs, health insurance costs; these are costs that every public employer in New York is facing, not just Saugerties. They’ve done a very good job of keeping those costs under control by laying off and not filling the positions of teachers who’ve retired. We had about 270 at the end of 2010 and now we’re down to about 233 [teachers and professional positions, such as guidance counselors and social workers].”

The union will continue to operate under the terms of its 2010 contract until an agreement is reached.

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