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More contract debate in Alton

THE ALTON BUDGET COMMITTEE and Alton School Board prepare to speak about the Alton Central School Teachers’ Contract Saturday morning. Weston Sager. (click for larger version)
September 28, 2010
ALTON — The Alton School Board and Alton Budget Committee sparred over the Alton Central School teachers' contract at Saturday morning's special deliberative session to a mostly empty Prospect Mountain High School auditorium.

The gorgeous Saturday weather certainly hurt attendance, which totaled no more than 35 people. Of those, most were either ACS teachers or town activists.

Similar to the Barnstead special meeting on Sept. 18, the school board opened with a PowerPoint slideshow presentation articulating the proposed changes to the contract. School board member Krista Argiropolis did the majority of speaking on behalf of the school board.

First she reviewed the increases to the proposed contract, which included a $550 one-time bonus for all "47.5" teachers, a $1,000 increase in the healthcare buy-back from $2,000 to $3,000, a $3,000 increase in the longevity retirement bonus from $9,000 to $12,000 and a $500 increase in the longevity stipend from $500 to $1,000.

She also mentioned the cuts that had been made to agreement following its defeat in March 2010. These included dropping the long-term disability compensation and decreasing the overall cost of the contract by roughly 50 percent.

With the proposed increase of $44,695 in teachers' salaries and benefits, she said the additional tax burden for the average Alton home would be $7.50.

Although much of Argiropolis' time was spent reviewing the contract itself, she used the opportunity to praise the Alton Central School's improvements in NECAP reading and math scores over the past year.

School Board Chairman Jeff St. Cyr also complimented the school, saying, "the staff and students have shown great pride" in recent years.

Steve Miller, chairman of the Alton Budget Committee, followed by saying that despite recent improvements, the school still lagged far behind most schools in the state.

But Miller stated his opposition to the teachers' contract did not originate from the school's performance, but rather from issues with the Evergreen law.

Under the new law, teachers are "entitled to be paid for additional years of experience in the district and attainment of credits even if a new contract is not in place and until the ratification of a successor agreement is reached" according to a NEA New Hampshire bulletin.

This change has major repercussions according to Miller. He said that if the new contract passes, it will take control away from the taxpayers should they want to renegotiate a new salary system in the future.

"We will be reaping the consequences for a significant length of time," he said.

Miller said the poor economy and the contract impasse provided the opportunity to change the philosophy surrounding teacher salaries from tenure-based to merit-based.

"A raise is supposed to be for doing a good job," he said.

He also opposed what he called the "free money" teachers receive under the insurance buy-back plan and the personal day buy-back plan. The town spent just over $22,000 last year in buying back unused sick leave and personal days for teachers.

Additionally, he said that teachers were working little for the amount of money they were making. He claimed ACS teachers were getting a full-year's salary for effectively working only seven months.

Finally, he was opposed to some non-teacher staff members reportedly being included under the teachers' salary and benefit umbrella.

Loring Carr, selectmen's representative to the budget committee, said the school board and the teachers had underestimated the actual increase to the contract.

He pointed to section 2.1.5 of the contract, which provided a $500 stipend for the five-team leaders at ACS. He said in this year and in years past, the $2,500 total was paid for in the school's operating budget. However, because the amount had been moved to the teachers' contract itself, he said that $2,500 should be added to the overall estimated contract increase.

The school board's attorney disagreed with Carr, saying the shift from budget item to contract item made no difference.

Carr motioned to have an amendment to the contract that added the five $500 stipends to the proposed total cost anyway, raising it from $44,695 to $47,195.

St. Cyr was opposed to Carr's amendment because the $2,500 had already been included in the school's operating budget for that year. He said raising the cost of the contract by $2,500 would in effect be raising the $2,500 sum twice.

The amendment was put to a public vote of the roughly 30 audience members and the 10 or so eligible board members. It was defeated handily.

Carr also complained of an incident in 2007 when St. Cyr reportedly awarded retirement bonuses to teachers younger than 60 years — the age minimum for retirement bonus eligibility.

Carr took this as evidence that the school board was capable of overriding the teachers' contract whenever they saw fit.

Both the school board's attorney and school board member Lynda Goossens refuted Carr's claim, saying that the incident in question was a unique occurrence.

"It's not the will of the board to change the contract," said Goossens. "It's not what happens."

Scott Bickford, president of the Alton Teachers' Association, reviewed some recent accomplishments of the ACS teachers and the benefits of the current tenure-based pay system.

Carr again took the microphone, this time accusing Bickford of painting too rosy a picture about the ACS teachers' past.

"You're massaging history terribly," said Carr.

Ray Howard of Alton complained that the teachers were receiving funding for additional education while those in the private sector did not.

Argiropolis claimed that select private corporations in the state actually offered better financial compensation for employees pursuing higher education than ACS.

Argiropolis reviewed the Prospect Mountain High School (PMHS) teachers' contract even though it has no chance of passing after Barnstead voted it down Sept. 18. The school board and the budget committee agreed not to take time discussing a contract that had already been defeated.

Town vote

The Alton Central School and Prospect Mountain High School teachers' contract vote for Alton will be held on Election Day, Nov. 2. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the PMHS auditorium.

Weston Sager can be reached at 569-3126 or wsager@salmonpress.com

Martin Lord Osman
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