Unfair Labor in Westford Schools?
WESTFORD -- In May, voters committed to paying an additional $1.6 million in taxes over the next three years so that teachers could be compensated at a more competitive rate.
But seven months later, teachers are working without a contract, the money for those raises is sitting in an untouched account and the union has filed a formal unfair labor practice complaint against the district.
School officials said they hope to reach a resolution in the coming months following an arbitration hearing. The override money, they said, would not go toward any other purpose than teacher salaries.
Negotiations between the Westford Education Association and the district on a new teachers’ contract began well before the prior one expired in August -- and officials even cited pending discussions as a reason to pass the override this spring and not at a future point -- but never yielded a result.
Both Superintendent Everett Olsen and School Committee Chair Terry Ryan, speaking in separate interviews, both described the breakdown in contract talks as stemming from a “language issue” rather than a “monetary issue.” The implication there is that district officials support paying higher salaries but that the parties cannot agree on some other term or requirement.
“Language issues often affect operations, how we do things, when we do things, why we do things,” Olsen said. “In this particular negotiations, it’s the language that’s the sticking point.”
Olsen described the language in question as “important in terms of the operation of the school system,” but declined to speak about the disagreement further. Mary McCusker, the union’s president, also declined to comment on discussions.
Ryan said the tone of the negotiations has been “great” despite the lack of a contract. However, Olsen said the union requested a formal arbitration process to resolve the dispute, which will take place early next year.
In the meantime, the override that voters supported by a 2,141-1,916 margin at town elections in May has gone into place as planned. It will unfold over a process of three years, and the average home in Westford is paying $61.27 more in property taxes in fiscal year 2018 as the first step.
Selectman and former School Committee member Tom Clay, who played an instrumental role in pursuing the override, said he hopes voters who supported the effort recognize the challenges that come with negotiations.
“We’re very confident in the teachers and the great work they’re doing,” Clay said. “In the end, we’re going to come up with a great solution that works for everybody. It’s not unnatural in contract negotiations to have disagreements.”
The money that has already been collected is in a compensation reserve account and will not be used until a deal is reached with teachers, district officials said. Whenever that agreement is finalized, teachers will receive back pay at the higher rate to account for fiscal year 2018.
“That is absolutely set aside,” Olsen said. “That money that was passed for the override is never going to be spent on general expenses other than the specific salaries for which it was intended.”
Since the previous contract expired at the end of August, teachers have worked for more than three months without a contract in place. As a result, annual step increases to salaries were not implemented, prompting a formal complaint by the union.
The WEA filed a complaint in October with the state Department of Labor Relations, alleging the School Committee made a “unilateral” decision to withhold step increases that were mandated under the now-expired contract without granting the union a chance to bargain.
Precedent for the decision is unclear. In its complaint, the union alleges that the district similarly attempted to freeze step increases after a previous collective bargaining agreement expired around 2011 but eventually yielded, implying support for step increases going forward. But Olsen said the district in the past had not paid increases without an agreement in place.
The union’s representative did not respond to requests for comment on the complaint or the district’s actions.
It will be at least several weeks before the situation is resolved. The arbitration process will not take place until early 2018, and the union and district will both present arguments related to the labor complaint in January, according to Olsen.
But Olsen said he hopes the two parties will maintain respect.
“In the years I’ve been in Westford, we have not had a labor management acrimonious relationship,” Olsen said. “We’ve always had good, strong, trusting relationships. What I want to ensure is that that continues throughout the entire process.”
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