AB School Committee violates policy in union contract approval

The AB Regional School Committee (SC) violated a commitment to allow for meaningful public input prior to approving the new three-year teacher's agreement with the Acton Education Association (AEA).

Last June, 2013, when contract negotations between the SC and AEA had been going on for several months, Acton Forum editors Allen Nitschelm (the writer of this article) and Charlie Kadlec renewed their request for a public review period prior to the SC's vote. This resulted in the SC discussing the issue, checking with legal counsel, and issuing a policy that would somewhat meet Nitschelm and Kadlec's demands.

Without specifying a two-week time frame as requested, the School Committee, through its Chairman, Maria Neyland, agreed to post all relevant information about the proposed new union contracts in advance, so "the public will then have time to review the information and provide comment at the public meeting."

"We have reviewed your request, and we can agree to the following process: Once we reach at tentative agreement with a bargaining unit, the agreement will go to the bargaining unit for a ratification vote. Once it is approved, we will schedule and post a public School Committee meeting to discuss and vote the proposal. Before that meeting we will post a public packet of information which will include a summary of the proposal," Neyland wrote.

No information prior to the May 22, 2014 School Committee meeting related to the specifics of the AEA contract was posted in advance as promised.

PROCESS NOT FOLLOWED DURING AEA CONTRACT APPROVAL

On Tuesday, May 20, 2014, Nitschelm received a "revised agenda" notice that the School Committee would be holding a meeting that Thursday, May 22, to present the proposed new three-year AEA agreement for approval. The agenda specified that the "[AEA] Agreement would be brought to the meeting."

Nitschelm sent a letter to the SC again requesting a two-week public comment period before any vote would be taken.

No contract or other financial information was posted on the school's website at that time as the Committee had promised to do the previous June.

Nitschelm then attended the SC meeting on May 22 and was the only member of the public to speak. The SC then unanimously approved the new union contracts that evening. See http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/ab-school-committee-approves-new-... for the details on the meeting and contract approval. Copies of an overview of the changes and the financial analysis were put out on the agenda table just before the meeting began, which was roughly one hour before the School Committee voted to approve the contract.

After Nitschelm spoke, Neyland told him that he was sent a copy of the legal opinion a year ago as to why a two-week waiting period would not be allowed. "We've had this debate. It was a year ago. I don't want to have this debate publicly, I mean, I'm happy to have the debate publicly but you and I have had this conversation, we've had it in front of the Committee, it's the same conversation."

Nitschelm asked some questions from his quick reading of the materials, but not all of his questions were answered. Neyland said that staff would get back to him later on with the answer to one of his questions. Nitschelm again asked for a delay since he was seeing the contract and financial terms for the first time that night. He said it was "ludicrous" to have public comment for eighteen months without the agreement being released upon which to comment, and that looking at the agreement for a few minutes that night was not adequate time.

After a couple of comments about Nitschelm's request for a vote delay and why they wouldn't agree to it, the School Committee voted to approve the contract.

The School Committee meeting of May 22, 2014, can be seen on Acton TV at http://actontv.org/on-demand/post-video/school-committee-mtg-5-22-14mp4-.... The AEA contract approval portion of the meeting starts at 12:30.

The School Committee said the AEA held its meeting and approved the agreement that afternoon. It was not disclosed when the AEA and the school negotiations subcommittee reached an agreement and when the AEA sent the draft agreement to its members. According to the policy as outlined by Neyland in 2013, the School Committee meeting would be scheduled and posted only after the AEA votes to approve the agreement.

"Once it is approved [by the AEA], we will schedule and post a public School Committee meeting to discuss and vote the proposal," Neyland said in her June 14, 2013 email to Nitschelm and Kadlec.

By not showing information in advance, no analysis could be conducted, no extensive questions could be asked, and no private communication with members of the School Committee could be attempted by the public, the media, or members of other town boards prior to the SC's vote to approve the contract. The union contract vote is responsible for over $120 million in spending over four years.

NITSCHELM REVIEWS THE PRIOR YEAR'S SC EMAILS

Frankly, I hadn't remembered the specific emails and correspondence from the prior year on this topic, but after being told that I had been sent a legal opinion, and being publicly belittled by Neyland (as is her current custom whenever I speak at School Committee meetings), I researched my prior emails and found four emails from Neyland on behalf of the SC on this topic from May and June, 2013. There was no email containing a copy of a legal opinion. A complete copy of Neyland's 2013 emails on this topic to me are below.

During the SC meeting, member Michael Coppolino explained his reasons for not allowing a waiting period (37:15 on Acton TV). He said that it would just be for show, since the School Committee, according to this mysterious legal opinion, would be "bargaining in bad faith" if it released executive session information prior to a vote by the full School Committee. So to accept public input and then not be able to act on it would be misleading the public and just providing "lip service" to a public process.

Member Paul Murphy said that the School Committee, in approving the contract that night, was following its procedures. Neyland agreed.

Yet the procedure for approval as outlined by Chairman Neyland in her email to Nitschelm and Kadlec in 2013 was not followed. And this procedure, which the SC must have cleared with its legal counsel in advance back in 2013, would in fact allow for some period of public input, for at least two days (the minimum meeting posting period) and as much as a week or two, if in fact the meeting is scheduled "after" the AEA ratifies the agreement.

Neyland said she had searched her emails for a copy of the legal opinion that she said was sent to Nitschelm just prior to the SC meeting. Yet she made no mention of the policy outlined in her 2013 letter to Nitschelm which was copied to APS Chair Dennis Bruce. Other emails in the series were sent to the entire SC and other school and town administrators.

Neither the contract, explanation, nor financial terms of the new AEA agreement were posted on the school's website in advance as her stated policy promised. As of Friday morning, May 23, 2014, the day after the public approval, the contract and financial terms were still not on the website.

Speaking personally, one of the problems in even going to School Committee meetings is the inability to have a civil conversation with the School Committee when Chairman Neyland does not allow me to speak. Every other speaker I have ever heard address the School Committee is treated more respectfully. Perhaps Neyland needs to review the school's policy on bullying.

It is hard to keep track of at the time, but I've since gone back to the tape and rewatched the meeting, and Neyland interrupts me 5 times as I am speaking or asking questions (see 35:30 on the tape.)

SCHOOL COMMITTEE POSITION ILLOGICAL

Without seeing a copy of the legal opinion, it is hard to understand this logic. Why have a public discussion and meeting if the School Committee has already decided to approve the agreement? And if they haven't, why can't they consider public input?

In my view, the purpose of having a subcommittee is to negotiate the agreement, but then the AEA and the School Committee must vote to approve it. There should be no absolute guarantee that both parties will do so. In fact, union contract approvals are not a "given." One often reads about disagreements between union negotiators and the "rank and file." Why then would the School Committee as a whole be bound when the other side is not? And therefore why can't taxpayers and other town boards and staff weigh in prior to the Regional School Committee committing taxpayers to over $120 million in spending over four years without any real input?

The argument that is being advanced by the School Committee is that if they voted against the agreement, it could be considered "bargaining in bad faith." However, this argument does not stand up to scrutiny.

First, why would they have changed their policy and agreed to post the contract terms in advance if legally that could be bad-faith negotiating? Clearly their prior agreement in 2013 to do so (even though it was violated this year) must be lawful.

Second, if the School Committee allows its subcommittee to do its job, then it should be able to review and approve (or deny) the agreement reached. Isn't that one of the points of having a subcommittee?

The School Committee can withhold all of its private discussions until a final agreement is approved by both sides. That would maintain the confidentiality that is sought by both parties.

By not allowing for an objective vote by the School Committee, it is purposefully isolating its decision-making from public comment and scrutiny. This is a dangerous procedure which allows mistakes to be made by an insular body operating in total secrecy that should be given a "reality check" by the public before it enters into a binding three-year agreement.

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EMAILS FROM NEYLAND

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FRIDAY, JUNE 14, 2013:
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Hi Allen and Charlie,

We have reviewed your request, and we can agree to the following process: Once we reach at tentative agreement with a bargaining unit, the agreement will go to the bargaining unit for a ratification vote. Once it is approved, we will schedule and post a public School Committee meeting to discuss and vote the proposal. Before that meeting we will post a public packet of information which will include a summary of the proposal. The public will then have time to review the information and provide comment at the public meeting.

Thank you,
Maria

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TUESDAY, JUNE 4, 2013:
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Allen,

Thank you for your inquiry about a public comment period for negotiations. We would welcome any public comment or suggestions about negotiations at this time. However, according to the ground rules that the School Committee has set with the AEA and other bargaining units for negotiations, we are not allowed to discuss negotiations until the contract is ratified. Once we come to an agreement, the bargaining unit will hold a meeting to ratify the contract and then the School Committee will have an open meeting with the contract ratification discussion and vote on the agenda. When this happens, we can take public feedback and the committee can discuss the pros and cons of the public comment, but we will need to vote at that meeting. If we agreed to wait two weeks we would not be honoring the good faith bargaining process in which we are legally required to participate.

Again, if you have feedback and input, I encourage you to give that input to the School Committee now so that we may consider it throughout the negotiations process.

Your letter and this response are included in the for your information portion of our packet for the June 6, 2013 School Committee meeting.

Thank you,
Maria

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WEDNESDAY MAY 22, 2013:
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Allen,

Sorry for the delay in getting back to you, I will follow up tomorrow and get back to you asap. Steve and I will be meeting next week to set the agenda.

Maria

On Mon, May 20, 2013 at 4:03 PM, Allen Nitschelm wrote:

Hi Maria,

Any news to report back yet from the attorney on our request?

Is this issue on the agenda for an upcoming SC meeting?

Allen

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WEDNESDAY MAY 1, 2013:
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Allen,

Thank you for your email, it has been forwarded to counsel to consider the legality of your request.

Thank you,
Maria

On Mon, Apr 29, 2013 at 9:05 AM, Acton Forum wrote:

Dear School Committee Chairs Neyland and Bruce:

We are very concerned about the lack of transparency in the process being used by the school committees to approve school labor union contracts. Acceptance of these three-year agreements bind the town and Acton taxpayers to expenditures which are more than half of our total yearly budgets without any meaningful input from the public, the FinCom, or the BoS.

We know that the union contracts are being renewed shortly. We urge the school committees to consider the importance of transparency and to adopt a new procedure for labor union contract approvals.

HOW TO FIX THE TRANSPARENCY PROBLEM

We propose that the School Committee hold a public hearing about any new union contracts and allow at least two weeks for members of the public and other town boards to review the proposed contracts and offer their comments to the school committees before a formal vote is taken. Redacted documents including minutes and financial analyses could also be released, so long as they are reviewed so as not to harm future negotiations should the proposed contracts be approved or reopened negotiations should the proposed contracts not be approved. Or, if preparing the documents for release would cause too much of a delay, the Negotiations Subcommittee could hold an open meeting to explain the financial implications of the proposed contract and stick to what has been agreed to and not get into alternatives that the union or schools may have proposed in negotiations.

This would not change in any way the ultimate authority of the School Committees to approve union agreements. It would, however, allow the School Committees to get feedback from the public and other town boards prior to voting on the proposed new contracts. This is especially important in light of the proposal for full school regionalization. In our view, continuing the current practice of approving the contracts without public input would be even more harmful in a fully regionalized system.

BACKGROUND

When the current teacher union contract was approved in 2010 the process was anything but transparent. A special School Committee meeting was held on a Friday night. A public presentation to "sell" the agreement was given, but it did not provide full disclosure of the long-term costs of the new contract. Members of the public were allowed to speak, but had no time to prepare information, speak with any School Committee members, or review any specifics. The school committees then voted to approve the contract that same night. Only later, after we had requested hundreds of pages of previously unavailable subcommittee documents were we able to calculate the full cost of the new contract.

Acton's Finance Committee had offered a specific recommendation regarding all new labor union contracts -- that they be "net zero." This advice was followed by Town Manager Steve Ledoux for the municipal contracts. It is significant that the Town Manager, the only non-school committee voter who had access to the information about the proposed contracts, was also the only one who voted against acceptance because the proposed school contracts did not comply with the FinCom recommendation.

TEACHER SALARIES ARE HIGH

It should be noted that teacher salaries in the Acton / AB school system are high. The data indicates that raises of 5-10% per year to teachers have been routine and we now have 12 classroom teachers who earned over $100,000 each last year (2012 gross wages) for a nine-month school year, not including benefits. The average and median salaries of the teaching staff (both elementary, high school, and other teachers) was about $75,000 per year, not including stipends or benefits. It is possible that lack of public transparency is at least partly responsible for these increases.

OTHER SALARIES ARE ALSO HIGH

Teachers are not the only highly compensated individuals in the school system. The head custodian, groundskeeper, electrician, and plumber earned in the $85,000 - $92,000 range in gross wages last year. The average custodian in the Acton school system earned $55,461 last year. And the number of employees in the system who earned over $100,000 jumped from 30 in 2011 to 36 in 2012.

We request that the School Committees consider this issue and decide if more transparency would be beneficial to them and to the public. We ask that the other town boards who are involved with funding for the schools, primarily the Selectmen and Finance Committee, also provide their guidance whether more transparency and accountability would be beneficial to their boards.

Allen Nitschelm and Charlie Kadlec

Acton Forum

cc: Local and Regional School Committees, Board of Selectmen, Finance Committee, Acton Patch, Acton Beacon, Town Manager Steve Ledoux
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