NEW ROCHELLE, NY — The New Rochelle Board of Education today issued the statement promised before the Christmas break after Talk of the Sound requested a reply to the statement issued by FUSE in December.
At 8,000 words, not including several attached PDF files and links to articles from New York area media outlets, it comes in at just under 27 pages. Who the audience might be for this Moby Dick-sized monster memo is difficult to say. Few parents are likely to read even a small fraction of it, union leadership is likely to be unmoved by it, and the public is unlikely to care.
Generally speaking, it is a rebuttal to two past statements by FUSE Leadership:
The real purpose is most likely to generate large legal fees for the lawyers involved in writing this tome — largely making the union’s point about excessive legal fees flowing to Ingerman Smith, the Board’s outside counsel.
Having read all of it, we can tell readers the short version: the District says it is on the brink of financial collapse, there is no cavalry coming to save the day, the Board’s offer was fair and the union’s behavior was precipitous.
If you want all the details, read on.
FUSE, the union representing pedagogical staff and service-related professionals, and the Board of Education began collective bargaining for a new contract in February 2020. In June, FUSE declared negotiations were at an impasse and a mediator was brought in who set the two parties working on a three-year contract. The parties went back to work in October but FUSE once again declared impasse in December and issued a statement blaming the Board of Education and their lawyers.
In response, the Board of Education issued a statement, saying they would not issue a statement but would issue a statement later.
Both sides have criticized the other which each claiming to have bargained in good faith while suggesting the other side had not.
EMAIL RESPONSE TO FUSE STATEMENT (SHORT VERSION) — 2020-0104
First, we want to make clear how much we value and respect the hard work of FUSE members. This is always true, but the pandemic has presented unique, difficult challenges for our school community. We deeply appreciate staff members’ ongoing efforts to promote and safeguard children’s educational welfare, and we understand the important role members play in our continued academic success. We believe the wage package recently rejected by FUSE is indicative of our sincere effort to reward our hardworking staff while honoring our commitment to ensure the District’s fiscal stability. Notwithstanding the declaration of impasse, our door remains open to FUSE and it’s negotiating team in our ongoing efforts to reach a fiscally responsible and equitable settlement for all.
The parties’ inability to reach a settlement is based upon the District’s precarious financial condition, the fiscal uncertainty under which all school districts are currently operating and FUSE’s unreasonable salary demands. FUSE has repeatedly asserted that our financial situation is related to certain employee buyouts and our retention of a new law firm in January 2019. It is common for school districts to negotiate such buyouts as a result of the vast due process protections afforded public sector employees to the extent the District seeks to terminate their employment. These due process protections typically result in lengthy proceedings during which the employee must be afforded his/her full pay and benefits. The significant litigation costs (including legal fees) associated with the prosecution of such proceedings and any appeals and/or related litigation are averted to the extent an amicable settlement can be reached. Ultimately, the decision to negotiate a buyout comes down to a cost benefit analysis for the Board of Education and settling these cases has undoubtedly resulted in significant savings to the District in the long run.
For years, our revenue streams have failed to keep pace with our substantial and escalating costs. This disparity has grown exponentially in today’s challenging, pandemic-driven financial climate, and economic forecasts warn that the circumstances will likely deteriorate further in future years. The District website contains a letter setting forth a more detailed explanation of the financial circumstances driving the District’s position which can be accessed here.
Throughout negotiations, we have shared significant information with FUSE regarding the harsh fiscal reality we are all facing. We are thus deeply disappointed that FUSE has continued to demand the same base salary increase granted in July 2019 (1.35%), in addition to the $1.8 million the District has expended on step increases (which is approximately 1.5% of base payroll) already granted for this year. The District simply cannot afford the base wage increases sought by FUSE while simultaneously maintaining the existing academic program, current class sizes and ensuring no staffing cuts. In reality, our true fiscal circumstance cannot be fully known until later this Spring, at which point we will all gain a better understanding of the state’s ability to provide adequate funding.
The more comprehensive letter outlines the manner in which prior economic downturns have impacted regional settlements in the recent past. However, there is one particular school district whose recent contract settlements warrant specific consideration. In a recent public statement, FUSE advised the community that White Plains “is in the middle of a three-year contract with increases of 1.5% for each year.” But it is important to note that agreement was reached well prior to the onset of the current pandemic and resulting economic downturn. When this settlement was raised by FUSE at the bargaining table, the District responded by providing FUSE with an analysis showing the wage increases granted to White Plains teachers from 2012/13 through 2021/22 compared to those granted to New Rochelle teachers. This analysis (which also can be found on our website) clearly shows that even if we assume no increase to base wages for New Rochelle teachers for the next two years (2020/21 and 2021/2022), New Rochelle teachers will have received an average increase of 1.24%; White Plains teachers will have received an average increase of .80%. If New Rochelle teachers were granted the same 1.5% granted to White Plains teachers for each of the last two years, their average increase would be 1.54%, or almost twice as much as the average increase granted to White Plains teachers.
The Parties’ First Attempt To Reach Settlement
The parties’ first effort to reach a settlement resulted in FUSE declaring impasse in June with the New York State Public Employment Relations Board. FUSE asserted the Board, “was insisting on a hard freeze to salaries (no step increases).” This is false — and ignores an important aspect of the Board’s offer. The Board’s proposal sought to delay step increases until February 1, 2021. This plan would have granted affected staff (comprised of 20% of the bargaining unit) the same base rate increase they were entitled to under the contract midway through the fiscal year, as opposed to immediately on July 1. These step increases to base salary were as high as 12%-13% for certain staff members. We asked to delay the increase so that the monies saved could provide a one-time payment to the remaining 80% of the staff not entitled to a step increase this year and have yet to receive any additional compensation because of the lack of a new contract. This creative approach has been used by many neighboring school districts (links in the comprehensive letter provide specific examples of this approach). But FUSE insisted that its members were entitled to receive the same base wage increase (1.35% in addition to the 1.5% of base payroll cost for increment) the parties agreed to under a profoundly different economic climate in July 2019. When the Board declined but asked that the parties continue negotiating in an effort to find a solution, FUSE filed for impasse and requested appointment of a mediator. When a mediator was appointed by PERB in late August 2020, FUSE withdrew the declaration of impasse in late September of 2020.
The Parties’ Second Attempt to Reach Settlement
The parties resumed bargaining on October 28, 2020. For more detailed information regarding the parties’ proposals, please access the more comprehensive letter on the website. The FUSE package included a 6% wage increase demand over three (3) years, which would have cost the District more than $15.8 million. On December 15, 2020, FUSE reduced this demand to 3% over two (2) years. Although the Board believed that this financial package was wholly unrealistic amid current circumstances, the District’s negotiating team was directed to generate a fiscally responsible wage offer for the Board’s consideration with the goal of reaching a settlement before the holidays. The Board quickly realized the only fiscally responsible offer was a one-year deal covering this year only, enabling the District to return to the bargaining table in May to negotiate a long-term contract with FUSE, which is our shared priority. This is the approach recently taken in the Katonah school district, where the parties rolled over the contract for one (1) year. Teachers there only received step increases this year.
Our most recently rejected District wage offer consisted of a base wage increase of .54% effective January 1, 2021 and an additional .86% one-time payment that would not be added to base wages. Even though the offer was for one year, the Board evaluated the cost over three (3) years to better determine its financial impact upon future budgets. The Board’s wage offer would have cost $3,479,546 over the three years. However, FUSE once again insisted upon receiving the same base wage increase (1.35% retroactive to July 1, 2020) already rejected by the Board in June. The financial package sought by FUSE would have cost $6,250,859 over three (3) years.
In return for what we believed was a more than generous financial offer, the Board sought four modest changes to the contract. The comprehensive letter provides more detailed information concerning these proposals along with the Board’s rationale for seeking the specific change.
We firmly believe the one-year offer recently rejected by FUSE would have afforded the crucially important time needed to assess the District’s long-term financial condition and better position the parties to reach a long-term contract in the Spring. Instead, FUSE has chosen the often long and arduous mediation process to resolve this matter and has done so during an unprecedented fiscal crisis. The current agreement between the parties expired on June 30, 2020, but the District has a legal obligation to honor the contract until a new agreement is reached. This includes the step increases described above, which have already been paid. Once FUSE files its second declaration of impasse, the State will appoint a mediator. It is expected that the first mediation session will occur in February and the process will continue through at least May.
The Board will continue to update the community on this important endeavor and is hopeful that the parties will eventually reach a fair and equitable settlement with the assistance of the mediator.
We thank you for giving us the opportunity to serve the community and appreciate your continued support of our efforts.
The New Rochelle Board of Education
Rachel Relkin, President
William Iannuzzi, Vice President
FULL VERSION OF LETTER RE: FUSE 2021-0104 (COMPLETE MESSAGE)
As you may be aware, the New Rochelle Board of Education and FUSE (Federation of United School Employees) have been actively engaged in collective bargaining for a new agreement since February of 2020. The Board has been resolute in refraining from engaging in public discourse regarding the negotiations believing that the disclosure of such discussions sometimes serves as an impediment to reaching a settlement. However, with the recent unilateral declaration of impasse by FUSE after the parties’ second attempt to reach a fair and equitable settlement, the Board feels that the community needs to be fully apprised of the facts and circumstances that have led us to this point.
THE ECONOMIC CLIMATE
The parties are negotiating during an unprecedented time in the State of New York as it relates to school district finances and operations. For many years, school district costs, which have included many unfunded New York State mandates, have continued to escalate unabated without a corresponding increase to our revenue streams. Yet no one could have predicted the dire financial climate we presently find ourselves in and it is likely that this fiscal crisis will have a profound impact upon school district finances for many years to come.
During our budget discussions last Spring, we informed the community of the significant reduction we experienced in our anticipated state aid for the 2020/21 school year. We further shared with you information regarding certain aspects of the State adopted budget that provided the Governor’s Office with broad authority to further cut State Aid well into this fiscal year. Indeed, we are now nine (9) months into the 2020/21 New York State budget cycle and we still do not know whether the Governor will follow through on his consistent threats to cut our State Aid by as much as 20%, resulting in a $9.6 million reduction in desperately needed funding for this year. This crucial decision to withhold funds can be made by the State as late as March of 2021, putting all school districts in a precarious position in attempting to forecast how and in what manner funds should be allocated in the future.
In late October 2020, the New York State Division of the Budget announced that the State suffered a $14.9 billion decline in general fund revenue during the year and projected a further loss of nearly $63 billion through the 2024 fiscal year due to the pandemic. This new fiscal reality has forced the State to reduce its spending by $4.3 billion just through September. The State has accomplished this by taking some rather extreme fiscal measures such as implementing a freeze on hiring, refusing to grant new contracts, foregoing pay raises for state employees, and temporarily holding back 20% of most payments.
Recent media reports paint a bleak economic picture nationally as well as in the State of New York. A New York Post article dated December 17, 2020, entitled “Governor Cuomo urges help from Big Labor to address fiscal crisis” describes the critical need for labor unions to provide meaningful concessions in the current climate:
Governor Cuomo huddled virtually with labor leaders to discuss the gravity of New York’s pandemic-fueled fiscal crisis as he and lawmakers struggle to close a massive hole in next year’s budget. The Governor’s message was, ‘Things are dire. I’m going to need your help,’ a union source said of Wednesday’s secret chat…Participants in the conference call included…Andy Pallotta, head of the New York State United Teachers.
With the recent passage of the Federal stimulus package, it was thought that this much needed financial relief would ease the stress upon local school districts and reduce concerns over the above-referenced threatened cuts. However, a recent New York Times article dated December 22, 2020 and entitled “Public schools face a funding ‘death spiral’ as enrollment falls“, forecasts a grim financial outlook for public schools nationwide in the future:
Schools can expect about $54 billion from the coronavirus stimulus plan approved by Congress late Monday night. But officials say that’s not nearly enough to make up for the crushing losses state and local budgets have suffered during the pandemic, or the costs of both remote learning and attempts to bring students back to classrooms. Advocates for public education estimate that schools have lost close to $200 billion so far…The pandemic has already forced schools across the country to fire nonunion employees, spending the money instead on remote learning technology, retrofitting buildings, testing and surveillance programs, and other coronavirus-related expenses. Education has been among the hardest hit parts of the economy, according to an analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts, with employment down 8.8 percent in October from the year before and lower than at any point in the past two decades – a loss of millions of jobs. The fiscal crisis is looming at a time when families fed up with pandemic-era education have increasingly turned to private and charter schools or chosen to educate their children at home. That’s potentially a major drain on public school budgets, because most states base school funding at least in part on enrollment numbers…”We’ll have to see how many of those folks come back home after normalcy is achieved,” said David Adkins, the executive director and chief executive of the Council of State Governments. But if the pandemic accelerates an exodus of affluent families from the public school system, he said, he fears the loss of enrollment and political support could trigger a “death spiral,” further weakening public schools at a time when poor and disadvantaged students are already lagging.
A recent Journal News article concerning the passage of the stimulus bill provides little, if any, optimism that it will have a positive long-term impact upon New York State finances:
The stimulus aid will only go so far for New York’s schools. The package did not include aid to state and municipal government, which Cuomo and others have said is needed to help close New York’s budget deficit and prevent state aid cuts to schools this year or next. “We have a $15 billion deficit caused by COVID, caused by the federal government, caused by their incompetence,” Cuomo said Monday. “I can’t fund schools.”
The City School District of New Rochelle has traditionally relied upon this vital assistance from the State simply to maintain the status quo. Moreover, any reduction in state aid will have a disproportionate impact upon school districts such as ours who rely so heavily on State Aid each year. Such reductions, if made threaten to have a catastrophic impact upon our District’s fiscal stability in future years.
In addition to what has been forecasted as a debilitating reduction in state aid, the pandemic will likely have a significant long-term impact upon the District’s other primary funding source, property tax revenue. Many property owners in our community have lost their jobs since the onset of the pandemic. Others have suffered pay cuts or losses in benefits, including crucial health insurance coverage at a time when it is needed most. Still others have suffered significant losses in business revenue or have had to simply close their businesses during this crisis. The foregoing is expected to impact the District’s finances in two significant ways. First, this economic instability will likely cause taxpayers to seek reductions in their assessments thereby resulting in an increase in property tax refunds issued by the District. Reduced assessments are most likely to occur for our commercial and multi-unit residential properties, which constitute the majority of the District’s tax base. These properties are often valued based on the income that they produce, which has sharply declined due to business closures and tenants’ inability to pay their rent. This will shift a greater tax burden upon the rest of the property owners in the community that, in turn, could impact the willingness of the community to support our budget in future years. Second, we realize that many of our property owners may not be able to continue to pay their property taxes on time (or in some cases at all) in the future. This will likely require the District to incur interest and administrative costs associated with short term borrowings, such as Tax Anticipation Notes, in future years to the extent taxpayers continue to experience challenges in paying their property taxes. Indeed, the District allocated $4.4 million in the 2020/21 budget in anticipation of having to borrow monies to cover budget gaps caused by the circumstances described above as well the uncertainty surrounding State Aid. Allocating monies in this manner allowed the Board to avert making any meaningful staffing cuts for the 2020/21 fiscal year, allowing us to retain our dedicated and valued staff during these uncertain economic times. While neighboring districts had to seriously consider and, in some cases, implement deep staffing cuts, we avoided what would have been a catastrophic result for those who would have been impacted. We are also extremely proud that the 2020/21 budget reflected a 0% increase to the tax levy, thus providing much needed relief for our community while simultaneously maintaining our outstanding academic program and current class sizes. However, maintaining a 0% tax levy increase will be unsustainable in future years.
We are hopeful that the economic circumstances will not prove to be as dire as has been reported and that our economic environment will significantly improve in the future. However, until we know this to be the case and the State has revealed its intentions regarding our State Aid, the Board has a fiduciary responsibility to be fiscally cautious at this time. Anything less would simply be reckless and could jeopardize the exceptional educational program we have all worked so hard to establish, including maintenance of our current class sizes, as well as lead to deep staffing cuts at a time when no one can afford to lose their jobs.
During negotiations, the District’s team was optimistic that FUSE would approach bargaining in a way that would recognize the financial realities we all face as a community. We were thus surprised to learn after almost ten (10) months of bargaining (less the four (4) months the parties lost due to FUSE’s first declaration of impasse), during which an extraordinary amount of data and fiscal information was shared, that FUSE’s demands have remained unchanged. FUSE has made abundantly clear, on two separate occasions, that it expects to receive the same base salary increase it was granted in July of 2019 (1.35%), in addition to the step increases (the cost of which is equivalent to an additional base salary increase of approximately 1.5%) that have already been granted for this year.
In our discussions with FUSE, we provided detailed information to its negotiating committee setting forth the composition of school district settlements for the 2011/12 and 2014/15 school years, which were the last two (2) most recent instances of financial stress in the region. This information was shared with FUSE to provide context for the Board’s offer and to persuade FUSE to recalibrate its expectations regarding wage increases. It is important to note that between the 2010/11-2012/13 school years, the District eliminated 213 positions from the budget over this three (3) year period. It is also important to note that the current fiscal crisis will likely result in future regional settlements that are far more conservative than those granted in the 2011/12 and 2014/15 school years.
In a recent public statement, FUSE advised the community:
For reference, White Plains, a comparable district, is in the middle of a three year contract with increases of 1.5% for each year.
The above seems to suggest that New Rochelle teachers should receive the same types of base wage increases as those granted to White Plains teachers. In the first instance, the most recent White Plains settlement was reached in the Spring/Summer of 2019, which was a profoundly different economic climate than the one school districts are facing for the foreseeable future. More importantly, the District provided FUSE with an analysis showing the wage increases granted to White Plains teachers over a ten (10) year period (from 2012/13 through 2021/22) as compared to those granted to New Rochelle teachers. Even if we assume no increase to base wages for New Rochelle teachers for the last two (2) years (2020/21 and 2021/2022), New Rochelle teachers will have received an average increase of 1.24% Opens in a new browser tab while White Plains teachers will have received an average increase of .80% over this ten (10) year period. If New Rochelle teachers were granted the same 1.5% granted to White Plains teachers for each of the last two (2) years, their average increase would be 1.54%, or almost twice as much as the average increase for similarly situated White Plains teachers Opens in a new browser tab .
THE PARTIES’ FIRST ATTEMPT TO REACH SETTLEMENT
The parties’ first effort to reach a settlement prior to the expiration of the current agreement on June 30, 2020 resulted in FUSE walking away from the bargaining table in June and unilaterally declaring impasse with the New Your State Public Employment Relations Board (“PERB”).
FUSE leadership has publicly asserted that it unilaterally declared impasse because the Board “was insisting on a hard freeze to salaries (no step increases).” This public assertion is simply false and fails to recognize an important facet of the Board’s offer at that time. The Board’s proposal sought for increment to be delayed until February 1, 2021. This plan would have granted affected staff (comprised of 20% of the bargaining unit) the same base rate increase they were entitled to under the contract midway through the fiscal year, as opposed to immediately on July 1. These step increases to base salary were as high as 12%-13% for certain staff members. We asked to delay the increase so that the monies saved could be used to provide a one-time payment to the remaining 80% of the staff who were not entitled to a step increase this year and have yet to receive any additional compensation due to the parties’ inability to reach a settlement. This creative approach has been used by many neighboring school districts in reaching settlements during prior economic downturns in the region. It was one that we thought FUSE would embrace given the circumstances, to ensure that everyone in the union would receive some form of additional compensation this year.
In response, FUSE insisted that its members were entitled to receive the same base wage increase the parties agreed to in the profoundly different economic climate the parties were operating under a year ago (1.35% in addition to the 1.5% of base payroll cost for increment). Our team was told multiple times during our negotiations in the Spring that FUSE was prepared to declare impasse unless the District acceded to its demands. When the Board declined but indicated a desire to continue talking, FUSE refused to meet with us any further, filing for impasse and requesting the appointment of a mediator in late July of 2020. A mediator was then appointed by PERB in late August of 2020. FUSE thereafter withdrew the declaration of impasse in late September of 2020.
THE PARTIES’ SECOND ATTEMPT TO REACH SETTLEMENT
The parties resumed bargaining on October 28, 2020. Both parties initially came to the table with a significant number of proposals. The first set of district proposals is here . The initial FUSE proposals are here . Negotiation ground rules are here. While it has been reported by FUSE that the District’s initial proposals included what it described as “outrageous demands”, it is important to note that FUSE came in with thirty-two (32) separate and distinct proposals. Their proposals included a base wage salary increase of 6% over three (3) years (in addition to step), notwithstanding the Board’s previous rejection of FUSE’s demand for a base salary increase of 1.35% for one (1) year in late June.
The parties thereafter agreed to reduce each side’s proposals to twelve (12) with the goal of reaching a settlement before the holidays. The reduced package proposed by FUSE (which still included the same 6% wage increase demand over three (3) years) would have cost the District more than $15.8 million over three (3) years. The District’s negotiating team shared this figure with FUSE, advising that this demand was simply unrealistic under the current circumstances. The District’s reduced set of proposals are here ; FUSE’s reduced set of proposals are here.
However, the Board was resolute in its desire to get a deal done before the holidays and directed the District’s negotiating team to generate a fiscally responsible wage offer for its consideration. The Board and the negotiating team emerged from this intensive review process realizing that, for a deal to get done before the holidays as the Board intended and considering the financial uncertainties, the only fiscally responsible offer it could make was a one-year deal covering this year only. This decision was made with the hope that New York State would deliver an on-time budget on April 1, 2021, thereby providing the Board with a greater degree of certainty regarding its State Aid revenue for 2021/22. With confirmation of its State Aid revenue and more time to discern the budgetary impact of other economic factors such as property tax revenue and increased spending due to the pandemic, the Board felt that it could return to the bargaining table in May in a much better position to negotiate a long-term contract with FUSE. This is precisely the approach recently taken in the Katonah school district, where the parties agreed to simply roll over the contract for one (1) year. Teachers there only received step increases this year and no other wage increases were granted as part of the settlement.
Our most recently rejected wage offer consisted of a base wage increase of .54% effective January 1, 2021 and an additional .86% one-time payment that would not be added to base wages. The Board constructed the offer in this way to ensure that the bulk of the monies would not have any impact on the budget beyond this year. Even though the offer was for one year, the Board evaluated the cost over three (3) years to better determine its financial impact upon future budgets. The Board’s wage offer cost a total of $3,479,546 over this three (3) year period (2020/21: $1,800,272; 2021/22: $833,387; and 2022/23: $845,887). The Board was prepared to fund this wage increase by taking some of the $4.4 million allocated in the budget for borrowing to offset the anticipated budget gaps that fortunately have not come to fruition yet and instead earmarking these monies for a settlement with FUSE. Now that we are almost halfway through the school year, it has become apparent that the need to borrow funds to the extent previously thought will no longer be necessary. However, the expenditure of additional monies could deplete our existing reserves to levels that would leave our credit rating vulnerable which would in turn impact the District’s ability to borrow at a time when such loans may be critical to the maintenance of the District’s operations.
FUSE responded to this wage offer by continuing to insist upon receiving the same base wage increase (1.35% retroactive to July 1, 2020) that had already been rejected by the Board for obvious reasons in June. The financial package sought by FUSE would have cost a total of $6,250,859 over three (3) years (2020/21: $2,052,676; 2021/22: $2,083,465; and 2022/23: $2,114,718). Details are in this status document.
All of the foregoing information was communicated to the FUSE negotiating committee in detail during our recent bargaining sessions. The economic data upon which the District’s financial proposals were grounded were provided to FUSE for its consideration. We anticipated that the economic data shared would lead FUSE to conclude, as we have, that the wage package offered (in addition to the step increase already granted to certain staff members at a cost of approximately $1.8 million) was the most fiscally responsible approach under the circumstances.
In return for what we believed was a generous financial offer under the circumstances, the Board sought four (4) modest changes to the contract:
Notice of Retirement: Currently, the contract provides for a payment of up to $10,000 for unused sick leave that a unit member has accumulated during employment. To be eligible for this payment, a unit member must retire either at the end of the first semester break or the end of the school year. Those retiring at the end of the first semester must provide notice of their retirement by October 1 (approximately four (4) months’ notice) to receive the payment. Those retiring at the end of the school year must provide notice by March 1 (again approximately 4 months’ notice) to receive payment. The Board requested that the provision be changed to require the teaching staff (the change would have no impact upon school related personnel) to retire at the end of the school year and provide notice by January 1 (approximately 6 months’ notice). The Board’s proposal would have exempted those who were unable to meet this requirement due to medical emergency. There are two vitally important reasons for this change, both of which directly impact the education of our students. Mid-year retirements typically have a negative impact upon the continuity of instruction that our youngsters need to ensure their academic success. The increased notice would have provided the District with more time to recruit and hire the very best candidates to replace our retiring teachers. The changes sought by the Board are in no way onerous for individual teachers but would have a significantly impacted the quality of instruction our students receive.
High School Duty Periods: Secondary teachers are generally required to teach five (5) periods and perform one (1) duty period each day. For the 2018/19 school year, the parties negotiated certain specific duties to be performed by High School teachers during one (1) such duty period every six (6) days with the understanding the agreement to do so would expire for 2019/20 unless mutually extended by the parties. The parties thereafter agreed to extend this obligation for the 2019/20 school year, again with the understanding the agreement to do so would expire for 2020/21 unless mutually extended by the parties. The Board asked that this agreement be permanently included in the contract for the 2020/21 school year and beyond (with some slight modifications that both sides recognized would best serve the interests of students).
Middle School and High School Coverages: During the 2018/19 school year, the Board discovered that the Albert Leonard Middle School was experiencing a significant problem in ensuring that the classes of absent teachers were being covered each day. This inability to cover classes resulted in a significant number of students simply being assigned to sit in the auditorium rather than receive their scheduled instruction. To address this academic problem, the parties agreed that for the 2019/20 school year, teachers would be paid during one of their two (2) non-teaching periods (prep or duty) to the extent they volunteered to cover a class. In the event there were not enough volunteers to cover the required number of classes, the District would have the right to assign teachers to cover classes on a paid basis to ensure continuity of instruction for our students. The ability for teachers to earn additional monies while simultaneously academically benefitting our students was a resounding success. During the 2019/20 school year, no one was involuntarily assigned to perform this vital work as all classes were covered on a voluntary basis. It is also important to note that the chief negotiator for FUSE, in explaining the negotiating team’s rationale for agreeing to this proposal, described the change as “a win for us”. The parties agreed to the foregoing provision with the understanding the agreement to do so would expire for 2020/21 unless mutually extended by the parties. During the 2019/20 school year, the Board discovered that the High School was experiencing a significant problem with the cancellation of classes due to teacher absences, thus depriving students of their scheduled instruction. To address this academic problem, the Board asked that the provision that was met with great success on the Middle School level and FUSE leadership previously described as “a win” for the union be extended to the High School. The Board also asked that this provision be permanently included in the contract for both Middle Schools and the High School for the 2020/21 school year and beyond.
School Calendar: Currently, the contract provides that the parties must reach agreement on the composition of the school calendar each year. The number of workdays is fixed as any increase in workdays must be agreed to by FUSE. The additional negotiations that must be held involve the placement of the days, typically a decision reserved for the Board of Education in most school districts, after appropriate input is first provided by staff. Rather than be obligated to negotiate what should ultimately be a management right, the Board proposed that the parties discuss the placement of these days in the Spring so that FUSE could have every opportunity to provide meaningful input with respect to its views on the calendar each year. After such discussions are held and FUSE’s input is considered, the Board would then be free to adopt the calendar that best meets the needs of all our constituent groups, including FUSE. To the extent that any changes needed to be made to the calendar after August 15 of each year, the Board was willing to retain the current language requiring that the parties reach agreement on the change. The Board firmly believes that to the extent it is legally required to adopt a calendar in the Spring each year, it should not be forced to accept FUSE’s position to the extent it is negatively impacts the District’s operations in some way. The current language does not provide the Board with this discretion.
It is also important to note three (3) proposals we believe directly impact upon the quality of instruction for our students that the Board has withdrawn in the interests of reaching settlement on a one (1) year deal.
Lesson Plans: There has been a great deal of misinformation in the public domain about what the Board is seeking in terms of lesson plans. Both parties have agreed that lesson planning is a vital component to ensuring optimal delivery of instruction to students. The Board’s proposal (since the 2019 negotiations) has been as follows:
The Building Principal shall have the right to request the production of lesson plans from teachers to ensure appropriate planning for the delivery of instruction. Said lesson plan is not required to be in a particular format with the exception that the plan must include an aim/objective/goal of the lesson as well the manner in which the teacher plans to meet the aim/objective/goal. The requested lesson plan must be produced upon request with the understanding that this provision will not be utilized/implemented in an arbitrary and/or capricious manner.
Although the Board did not feel that this requirement was in any way onerous, it agreed to forgo this request at this time, provided FUSE agreed to participate in a Lesson Planning Committee for the remainder of this school year so that each side could better understand the other’s concerns and ultimately reach agreement in the future on this important issue.
Child Care Leaves: The Board has a strong commitment to ensuring that our staff are provided with the ability to make reasoned choices in the context of family planning. However, this commitment must be balanced with our mission to always provide the highest quality instruction to our students. Even one (1) semester of subpar instruction could negatively impact students for the rest of their academic career. With this in mind, the Board sought to change the current child-care leave entitlements which provide staff members with the ability to request two (2) distinct leaves upon the birth of a child. The first leave permits staff members to use up to thirty (30) days of paid sick leave (which depending upon the time of year it is taken can be up to two (2) months) during the ten (10) weeks immediately following the birth of the child. The District is required to loan paid sick leave days to any staff member who does not have the full thirty (30) days available to them. This “loan” of days must be returned by the staff member in future years unless the staff member does not return from leave, in which case the additional salary paid can only be recovered by the District through litigation. Staff members must give at least three (3) months’ notice of such leave. The second leave available to staff (for the same child) is without pay and can be taken for up to two (2) years. Staff members must give at least three (3) months’ notice before taking this second leave. During either of the above leaves, the District may only fill the position on a temporary basis for the period of the leave. As with any employment situation, teachers seeking employment will always choose the greater security of a probationary appointment over employment in a temporary position. This typically results in high turnover amongst leave replacement staff. This turnover can lead to multiple teachers filling in for the absent teacher during a particular school year impacting the quality of instruction. Reasonably limiting the length of leave time in any manner under these circumstances can only serve to benefit students. The recruitment and hiring of highly qualified leave replacements is a difficult task that requires appropriate time and planning to facilitate. Accommodating two (2) distinct time periods for each child makes this process far more challenging. Implementing one (1) leave period does not significantly impact the overall benefit received by staff members, greatly assists the District’s ability to ensure continuity of instruction and is a the more common approach in most school districts. To that end the Board proposed the following:
Establish one notice period for leaves of absence for child-care purposes (3 months; to be provided in all cases with the exception of medical emergencies; not to include July and/or August) inclusive of: 1) use of up to 6 or 8 weeks of sick leave for childbirth; 2) up to 12 weeks FMLA; and 3) unpaid child-care leave. Employees must advise District of the total length of their leave of absence (not to exceed the maximum time period set forth in the CBA for child-care leaves (semester of birth plus 3 additional semesters) at the time initial notice is given, subject to medical emergencies.
We believe our proposal strikes the right balance between our desire to accommodate family planning while simultaneously limiting the overall impact this absence from the classroom has upon our students. Nonetheless, the Board withdrew this request from the most recent one (1) year package proposal.
Notice of Return to Work from Child Care Leave: The current contract requires that teachers provide written notice of their return to work which must occur at the beginning of as semester. Those returning at the beginning of the first semester must provide such notice by April 1 (approximately five (5) months’ notice inclusive of July and August). Those returning at the beginning of the second semester must provide such notice by November 15 (approximately two and one-half (2½) months’ notice). This requirement exists to ensure that the District can appropriately plan in the event the teacher decides to not return from their child-care leave (which is their right). The District is required to provide the staff member with a written reminder of the above notice requirement. If the staff member fails to respond to the reminder by the required notice date, the District can then treat the employee as having abandoned their position and move forward with finding a replacement. The Board sought to change the foregoing by requiring more notice to ensure sufficient time to find a highly qualified replacement (six (6) months not including the months of July and August), eliminating the obligation to send the staff member the reminder (it is unclear why the District is obligated to provide a reminder to someone regarding whether they intend to return to work) and changing the wording from job abandonment to resignation (to avoid any possibility of a due process violation argument being made by the affected teacher should the District move forward in securing a replacement).
Staff members must provide six months’ notice (not to include July and/or August) of their return to work, which must occur at the beginning of a semester. Failure to provide said notice in the absence of a medical emergency shall be deemed a resignation. Waiver of said notice and/or early return shall be at sole discretion of the administration.
Again, we do not believe that the changes sought represent an onerous burden for staff members under the circumstances. The ability to have more time to recruit and hire the very best teachers for our students is a critically important aspect of ensuring the continued academic success of our school district.
By any objective measure, the Boar’s most recent wage offer was a fair and reasonable compensation package in the face of great economic uncertainty. In return, the Board was seeking modest concessions from FUSE that would have had negligible impact upon the day-to-day working environment for FUSE members, particularly those in the school related personnel categories. It is unfortunate that FUSE has refused to continue negotiating and has rejected what the Board believes to be a more than fair offer under the circumstances. The District simply cannot afford the base wage increases sought, in addition to the $1.8 million it has already expended on step increases, while simultaneously maintaining the existing academic program, current class sizes and ensuring no staffing cuts in the future.
Notwithstanding what has been communicated by FUSE, the parties’ inability to reach a settlement is not about perceived strife that FUSE apparently believes exists between the parties. It is not about law firms or buyouts that FUSE has been informed multiple times were agreed to in order to save the District money in the long run. Nor is it about lesson plans or any of the other modest modifications to the contract the Board is seeking. Rather, it is all about the District’s precarious financial condition, the fiscal uncertainty all school districts are currently operating under and the unreasonable salary demands that FUSE has made throughout these negotiations.
We firmly believe the one (1) year offer recently rejected by FUSE would have afforded the crucially important time needed to assess the District’s long-term financial position and better position the parties to ultimately reach a long-term contract in the Spring. Instead, FUSE has chosen to embark on what is typically a long and arduous mediation process and has done so during an unprecedented fiscal crisis, the effects of which will likely impact our budget for many years to come.
Although the current agreement between the parties expired on June 30, 2020, it is important to note that the District has a legal obligation to continue to honor the terms and provisions of the contract until a new agreement is reached. This includes the payment of the step increases described above, which have already been granted. Unfortunately, this will not include the Middle School substitute coverage provision that was such a resounding success for both parties last year and FUSE had tentatively agreed during recent negotiations should be extended to the High School. This ability to earn additional monies which simultaneously benefited our students will no longer be available to staff this year in the absence of a settlement. We are hopeful that FUSE will ultimately realize that this important program should continue next year and be extended to the High School by way of a side letter agreement as it benefits both students academically and staff economically.
Notwithstanding the parties’ inability to reach an agreement at this time, we would like to make clear how much we value and respect the hard work performed by members of FUSE each and every day. We know that the current pandemic has presented unique and at times difficult challenges for our staff members. We are deeply appreciative of our staff’s ongoing efforts to promote and safeguard the educational welfare of the children of this community and understand the important role they play in the continued academic success of the District. We believe that the wage package offered is indicative of our sincere effort to appropriately reward our hardworking staff while simultaneously ensuring the District’s fiscal stability both now and in the future.
Once FUSE files its second declaration of impasse (it has not been filed yet) the State will thereafter appoint a mediator to assist the parties in reaching an agreement. It is expected that the first mediation session will occur in February and that this process will likely continue through at least May. However, we are still hopeful that FUSE will reconsider its demands and return to the bargaining table as soon as possible with a renewed approach that takes the economic circumstances we are now operating under into account. Our door will always be open to FUSE and its negotiating team so that the parties can continue to try to find a way to reach a fiscally responsible settlement. We firmly believe that continued dialogue between the parties is the best method for eventually reaching a fair and equitable settlement for all.
We thank you for giving us the opportunity to serve the community and appreciate your continued support of our efforts.
The New Rochelle Board of Education
Rachel Relkin, President
William Iannuzzi, Vice President