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Waterford RTM abstentions on union contract again cause stir

Waterford — Representative Town Meeting members are again at odds over a union contract vote, this time for the teachers’ union.

The Waterford Federation of Classroom Teachers and the Board of Education agreed on a contract in late January after beginning negotiations in August. The union and the board came to an agreement just before going to arbitration. On the RTM, 13 people abstained from the vote, three because of conflicts of interest. The 10 Republicans who abstained without a conflict of interest chose to make their disagreement with raising wages during a pandemic known without throwing contract negotiations to arbitration.

It’s the same story as a Jan. 4 RTM meeting, when 10 Republicans abstained from a vote on the school administrators’ union contract without specifying why until after the meeting, when they sent a unified statement to The Day. They also sent a unified statement about the teachers’ union contract on Tuesday.

"The Republican members of the RTM who are not employed by the BOE chose to abstain from the BOE teacher contract because we do not agree with the need to significantly increase already high salaries during a pandemic, and did not want to send the contract back to arbitration,” they said in a statement. “Arbitration would cost the taxpayers more money and could result in a less desirable contract. Both the administrator and teacher contracts would pass in 30 days if no action was taken by the RTM.”

Democrats were again critical of the Republican caucus’s reasoning.

“The Republican decision to abstain on this teachers’ contract casts doubt on their faith in our teachers and town negotiators,” RTM member Baird Welch-Collins said on Tuesday. “This contract was a fair deal for taxpayers and our teachers who have gone above and beyond their ordinary job requirements to support our students and families during this pandemic.”

RTM member Nick Gauthier was confused by the abstentions.

“If you think going to arbitration is going to cost our town more, then you should vote ‘yes’ in order to avoid arbitration,” he said. “Maybe you think it costs our town too much money — then you should vote ‘no.’ But to choose to abstain from voting is a dereliction of your duty as an elected member of the RTM. They’re just not doing the job for which they were elected. Everyone in town abstained from voting because they’re not on the RTM.”

The new contract, which begins July 1, 2021, and ends June 30, 2024, presents a $22,687,584 total base salary for 2022. Teachers are paid based on "steps," which represent their experience, and based on their education. The total impact on the teacher salary line is 2.5% a year for each of the three years. Teachers with the most experience receive a general wage increase of 1% a year for each of the three years. Other costs from the contract are step costs, meaning the costs associated with teachers moving up a step.

The 2021-22 total increase in salaries will be $554,309, which will jump to a $582,189 total increase in 2023-24.

For 2020-21, the salaries of teachers ranged from $47,390 to $94,560. In 2021-22, the salary of the highest-paid teacher climbs to $95,506, the next year to $96,461, then $97,426 for 2023-24.

Town Attorney Rob Avena mentioned during last week’s meeting that the RTM technically doesn’t have to vote on the labor agreement for it to be finalized. The contract is automatically approved 30 days after it’s filed with the town clerk, so it’s unnecessary to hold a meeting to approve the contract, only to reject it.

“If we as a body are going to just abstain from voting on these contracts, then why are we even taking the time to review the contract and have this come before our body?” Gauthier said.

Republicans made a similar point.

“At some point there has to be a conversation about, does this even come before the RTM,” RTM member Danielle Steward-Gelinas said. “We don’t really have a say. Why are we even talking about it? Why do we spend an extreme amount of time on a bargaining contract that we have no real impact on?”

While both parties are questioning the need to hold a vote on such matters at all, Democrats are saying only hold a vote if the contract will be voted down. Republicans said in their statement to The Day that they don’t understand the need for the RTM to vote “without the ability to provide input.”

“If we are unable to have an impact on these contracts, why would we vote yes? Why do we spend an inordinate amount of time discussing these contracts?” Republicans said in the statement. “These questions remain unanswered. These salary increases are a product of the Connecticut State Department of Education’s (CSDE) requirements and Waterford’s ability to pay. We support our BOE administrators and educators, but we struggle with these salary increases. These increases are not sustainable for the taxpayers in Waterford.”

s.spinella@theday.com

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