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NORTH BRANFORD - Following a February Town Council decision to reject a new teachers' contract agreement meted between the union and school board, an arbitration panel has unanimously approved of the contract by a vote of 3-0.
The panel's April decision forces the town to accept the contract the council rejected-and pay arbitration and legal fees that go along with the process. Those costs are estimated to be about $36,000.
At the May 15 Board of Education (BOE) meeting, the costs for the arbitration process, which will be charged to the BOE, were discussed. Director of Business/Personnel Donald Winnicki told the board the costs were not finalized as yet. However, the estimated expense for arbitration and legal fees is expected to reach approximately $36,000.
The new three-year teachers' contract upheld by the arbitration panel is identical to the contract that was voluntarily agreed upon in December 2013 by the BOE and the North Branford Federation Teachers union, Superintendent of Schools School Schoonmaker told The Sound. It becomes effective in the new fiscal year. It will give the town's teachers an average pay raise of about three percent per year.
"The teachers union prevailed in the arbitration, by a three-to-zero vote by the panel. The original contract that was negotiated between the BOE and the teachers stands as is…word for word, the same as what we originally set out with," said Schoonmaker.
The teachers' raises will be offset by a rise in health premium cost-sharing, he added.
"It was offset between salary increases and step movement with the premium share increasing by one percent each year of the three years," said Schoonmaker. "So the final year, the premium share was rising to about 22 percent and that offset the costs of their raises and step movements."
The contract was sent to arbitration after the Town Council voted 6-1 on Feb. 18 to reject the contract agreement. The council's six Republican members voted to reject the contract after some members raised concerns about income increases and health insurance premiums, according to minutes from the meeting.
Town Manager Mike Paulhus told The Sound his interpretation of the vote that night was the same as what the minutes reflected.
"I believe they felt it was too high, in terms of contract structuring, and their decision was to go to arbitration," said Paulhus.
Two of the council's nine members, Andrew Esposito (D) and Joseph Faughnan (D), were not it attendance at the Feb. 18 meeting. The council's third Democratic member, Marie Diamond, voted in favor of accepting the contract.
The council first heard an overview of the contract agreement, presented by Schoonmaker, at the Feb. 4 Town Council meeting. At the time, Schoonmaker told the council, "We felt that this was a fair contract based upon the data that we were comparing," which was taken from area towns and districts surrounding North Branford.
That night, the council also heard from Town Attorney John Gesmonde, who gave his opinion that the contract was fair and not extraordinary in any way. If the council took no action on the voluntary agreement between the union and the schools within 30 days, the contract would have automatically been accepted by the town.
Gesmonde also cautioned the council that costs for arbitration and attorney fees, in the event of the council rejecting the contract, could be "exorbitant." He also noted just three towns, out of 50 involved in contract negotiations with schools, went into arbitration in Connecticut in the past year.
Schoonmaker said that, as well as there being "very few in the state," North Branford's request for arbitration was "probably the only one voted unanimously against."
Schoonmaker said it "hurts the most" that the expense for the arbitration process and legal fees will be taken from school monies which could have been used for district needs.
"Unfortunately, in these fiscally difficult times, any monies that are spent that come out of the BOE budget are monies that don't get spent on the children. That's the part that I think hurts the most; those monies that could have been used for many of the needs in the district," he said. "We work for every dollar through the budget process and try to be as fiscally responsible as possible with every dollar, and to have a percentage that we think that this will grow to be spent on legal fees and arbitration could have been money spent elsewhere."