January 30, 2013LITTLETON — The budget committee's interest in town union contract spending reached a climax last Thursday afternoon. A motion to recommend the school district's new teacher contract failed at the meeting. The vote was three in favor, with four opposed.
The meeting was the last scheduled between the committee and the school board for this budget cycle. The sessions have included several acrimonious moments. That trend continued Thursday.
Superintendent Keith Pfeifer said that the fall negotiations with the Littleton Teachers Association were "fair and forthright." According to the proposed agreement, teachers would see an average pay increase of 3.48 percent next year, followed by increases of 3.33 percent and 3.06 percent the following two years.
Like the town, the school district negotiated notable savings in health insurance costs. This was made possible when the union agreed to employee copayment increases.
Committee members asked several questions about the new salary tables and the pay increases. Dann noted that teachers receive money to expand their education. They also earn pay increases after extra academic work.
Pfeifer responded that additional education means teachers "will improve how they teach and what they teach."
In many cases, Littleton students can earn college credit while still in high school. A teacher with a master's degree must teach those "running start" classes.
Board member Alison Bolt said that by offering a chance for college credit, "You save these families a fortune . . . It's a benefit to the community." Pfeifer added that the chance for college credit "helps improve what we deliver to the children." Additionally, he defended extra pay for teachers' academic training by saying, "Continuous adult learners become better teachers."
Even with this assurance, Dann responded, "We're paying somebody to make more money. That concept is jarring to me."
Bolt said that the district must ensure that it attracts new teachers. The new contract continues current practice, which other districts have implemented also, she noted.
The district also defended the contract by discussing new powers that administrators have. They would be able to more easily reassign teachers under the agreement. Lakeway Elementary Principal Rick Bidgood informed the committee that this involuntary reassignment power was a significant union concession. "The existing contract doesn't have it," he said.
Diane Cummings and Art Tighe inquired about the scope of the pay increases. Cummings said that some teachers will receive much more than the average increase that Pfeifer noted at the start of the meeting.
Tighe blunted asked, "Mr. Pfeifer, how are you justifying a three-and-a-half percent raise?" The superintendent replied, "There are compromises that are made" in union negotiations.
The district touted other parts of the proposed deal. For example, if reductions in force become necessary, new rules allow discretion for administrators on who gets let go. "Previously, we had to ask for volunteers," Pfeifer said.
Sick leave allowances were another concern of committee members. Chairman Steve Kelley said that the contract only requires a physician's note if a teacher misses five consecutive days.
Some members of the committee were concerned that dishonest employees may feign an illness. "I don't want to pay for sick leave if someone wasn't sick," Dann said.
Bidgood replied, "We don't assume they're dishonest. We have many good employees who don't abuse the system." Board member John Simon added that abuse of sick leave could lead to disciplinary action.
After continued discussion, the committee voted on recommending the agreement. Members Stan Fillion, Tony Ilacqua, and Schuyler Sweet voted in favor. Cummings, Tighe, Dann, and Jessica Daine were in the majority against supporting the contract.
Kelley said that he has not voted this year. He wanted to be consistent, only voting if necessary to break a tie.
Later discussion focused on using reserve funds to buy down the tax rate. In October, resident Brien Ward suggested that the board look into the matter. The idea has been of interest to the budget committee as a way to decrease the tax rate. The district continues to ponder this issue.