Monday, March 08, 2021

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Branford RTM Narrowly Approves Teachers' Contract

With extensive debate, followed by a vote of 14 in favor and 13 opposed, Branford's Representative Town Meeting (RTM) has narrowly approved a new, three-year teachers' contract signed between the Branford Board of Education (BOE) and the Branford Education Association (BEA).

The new contract for the Town's largest union kicks in July 1, 2021. It provides Branford public school teachers with a total wage increase of 8.3 percent over three years, given as pay raises of approximately 2.7 percent annually.  With 283 members in the union, the salary increase will add approximately $2.1 million to the BOE budget salary line over the life of the contract, although some fluctuation is anticipated over the three-year period due to teacher retirements/replacements.

As previously reported, the teachers' contract was settled in mediation, was signed between the Board of Education (BOE) and BEA in December, 2020, and is valid July 1, 2021 – June 30, 2024. The first year of the contract doesn't include step movement for teachers. Branford's educators also agreed to contribute an annual medical insurance cost increase of 0.5 percent; totaling 18.5% in year one; 19% in year two and 19.5% in year three. The contract gives teachers a 2.71 percent raise the first year, a 2.84 percent salary increase in year two and a 2.75 percent pay raise in year three. In the 2022-'23 and 2023-'24 contract years, those raises are in addition to step increases, which are fixed pay rate increases based on years of service and education; step increases can range from 1.7 percent to more than 10 percent annually.

During debate Jan. 13, RTM members agreed the town's educators deserve a pay raise, but some disputed the amount of that increase. Many representatives made note of the work teachers have been putting in throughout the pandemic to take on additional methods to continue to educate Branford's public school students, from use of technology to adapting to remote and hybrid learning protocols.

Ultimately, the RTM approved the contract on Jan. 13 by just one vote. The vote to approve was supported by all 12 RTM Democratic party members involved in the vote as well as two Republican RTM members. Thirteen Republican RTM members voted against approving the contract (see roll call vote results at end of this story). 

RTM members who voiced opposition to the contract spoke to the teachers' annual salary increase exceeding a 2.5 percent pay increase received by other Town employees; and said the new increase would set a precedent for other bargaining units in future contract negotiations. They also raised concerns about how the $2.1 million annual cost increase to the Town will impact taxpayers, especially those struggling economically due to the pandemic. Some also expressed frustration with the Town's legislative representative with the BOE during negotiations being a Board of Finance (BOF) member and not an RTM representative. Another concern was the risk that the RTM voting down the contract could trigger binding arbitration, costing the Town further legal expense and putting the final contract award decision in the hands of an outside panel. By CT state law, the process involves both parties submitting the disputed contract to an impartial arbitrator panel which would then render a final, binding award.

RTM Education chairman Ed Prete (R, District 6) said he supports the work of teachers, but couldn't vote to support the contract due to the size of the salary increase.

"By giving our largest union the largest increase, we may be setting an unsustainable precedent going forward," said Prete adding, "...my no vote should in no way be perceived as vote against the administration or the Board of Education [but] just one representative's concern of being mindful not only for our children, but of the burden being put on our town."

Rep. Marc Riccio (R, District 6) said teachers should be recognized for their work but a more reasonable salary increase would be appropriate. Riccio said he wouldn't support the contract because he felt it should be consistent with raises given to other Branford departments, and that it should take into account diminished rates of inflation and the additional tax burden to those who are struggling financially, including citizens impacted by the pandemic. Riccio also said binding arbitration could possibly be avoided, pointing to a case during his years on the RTM when a past administrators' contract was turned down, sent back, then reworked and awarded without going to binding arbitration.

"I've been consistent in the 10 years I've been on this body with making sure we keep salaries in line. This year is a very different year [that's been] extremely difficult [and] these citizens have made enormous sacrifices, and it's time for some of our Town employees, and our teachers, who are guaranteed a paycheck, to make some sacrifices," said Riccio, also noting, "...inflation has not increased over 2.5 percent since 2011. The numbers don't lie."

RTM minority leader and retired labor attorney Tom Brockett (D, District 7), said he respected all of his colleagues' comments but would vote in favor of the contract for a "variety of reasons," while also voicing his expectation that turning down the contract would send it to binding arbitration.

"The next step after mediation is arbitration, typically," Brockett said. "That essentially means that the mediation session happened because, after a long period of negotiations; neither the Board of Education nor the teachers union could apparently reach a contract agreement, so they called a state mediator in to help them with the contract. One of the reasons I will support this is because this is exactly what it says this is: a collectively bargained agreement. It's an agreement between the Board of Education and the union. After a long period of negotiations and of give and take, they reached this agreement through the process of a mediator. So if we were to reject this agreement, my best guess is it would not go back to mediation, it would go directly to arbitration, which [is] very costly [and] indeed often you lose, and there are attorney's fees involved."

During the Jan. 13 RTM meeting, BOE chairman John Prins explained teachers' contract salary negotiations take into consideration what the market supports (which he said is "a little unbalanced" for Branford, with towns like Madison and Guilford nearby); as well as what the market provides to teachers within the district's socioeconomic grouping.

"So those are really two important things for you to consider," said Prins, adding that, as noted by Brockett, there would be a good chance that this contract, if turned down by the RTM, would go to binding arbitration. Prins also noted arbitration takes into consideration a municipality's "financial health" when deciding the outcome.

"One of the things that's primary [among] the list of considerations for an arbitration process like this is the Town's ability to pay," said Prins.

Branford's current AAA bond rating, the highest assigned by S&P Global Ratings, was most recently reaffirmed in June, 2020.

RTM member Frank Twohill (R, District 1) said he felt there should be some reform to CT's decades-old binding arbitration laws. The laws were introduced under the state's Municipal Employee Relations Act (MERA) in 1975 and the Teacher Negotiation Act (TNA) in 1979.

"At the time binding arbitration for teachers was passed, our state ranked about 20th of all 50 states in [highest] education pay," said Twohill. "In the past 30 years, as property rates have climbed, our teachers in Connecticut have averaged the highest public school teacher [pay] average in the country...binding arbitration has been on the books for 30 years as a state law [and] it needs to be reformed at the state level."

Twohill urged taxpayers to ask their state legislators, and future candidates for the positions, what their stance is on binding arbitration laws and "...what they propose to do about it."

"It's costing us. Property taxes is what they use to pay these raises," said Twohill.

During the Jan. 13 roll call vote to approve the new teachers' contract, RTM members voting in favor were Republican members Anthony Alfone and Don Conklin and Democrats Dan Adelman, Tom Brockett, Tracy Everson, Linda Erlanger, DeeDee Hakun, Peter Hentschel, Peter Jackson, Donna Laich, Michele Sember, Ram Shrestha, Shahida Soomro and Clare Torelli. Voting against were Republican members Tricia Anderson, Patricia Austin, Peter Black, Lindsay Greenberg, Kevin Healy, Chris Hynes, Ray Ingraham, Ed Prete, Marc Riccio, Carolyn Sires, James Stepanek,  Frank Twohill and George David Wells.  RTM Democratic member Chris Sullivan recused himself from the vote.

As noted by Town Clerk Lisa Arpin at the start of the RTM meeting on Jan. 13, RTM member Sean Kelly, a Republican representing District 4, had submitted his resignation from the RTM.

In other RTM member news, at the end of the Jan. 13 meeting, the RTM thanked departing Republican Patricia Austin (District 1) for her service, and congratulated her on her new appointment to the Branford Board of Police Commissioners.

The Jan. 13 RTM meeting was accessible via Zoom and can be viewed on Branford Community Television and at the BCTV Facebook page (@MyBCTV).

This article is updated to correct an error in an earlier version stating the $2.1 million increase to the education budget is an annual increase; the increase is instead the total cost estimated over the life of the three-year contract. It has also been updated from an earlier notation of having "about 300" educators in the district to the exact number of 283.


Pam Johnson covers news for Branford and North Branford for Zip06. Email Pam at p.johnson@shorepublishing.com.

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