WESTBROOK — Teachers, guidance counselors, librarians, nurses and social workers in the Westbrook Education Association, working without a contract since the beginning of the school year, took to the School Committee last week clad in red to urge action.
Contract negotiations, which started in March of 2017, have failed and are now in the hands of a Maine Labor Relations Board fact-finding panel. The panel will hear from both sides and make recommendations about each disputed issue.
“A lot of things were agreed upon, but it became rather evident relatively immediately they were on opposite side on things,” said Jennifer Drouin, a nurse at Westbrook High School. “They have gone through negotiations, mediation and now are at fact finding and haven’t been able to resolve those differences.”
High School social studies teacher Jared Ruthman, president of the Westbrook Education Association, said working conditions are at the heart of the bargaining standoff. Primarily, he said, teachers don’t have enough time to get done what are they are required to do.
“It’s important to understand this is not about money. It is about ensuring we get the working conditions we need to properly support our students,” said Ruthman, a teacher in the district since 2000.
He noted, however, that because there is no updated contract in place and bargaining is in a state of “static status quo,” none of the members of the association have moved up on the pay scale.
“In essence, all of us have taken a pay cut this year,” he said.
Ruthman and dozens of his colleagues, wearing red, lined the hallway outside council chambers last week before the School Committee meeting to urge support for their cause.
“It is time for you guys to realize there is a crisis of morale in this community,” Ruthman told School Committee Chairman Jim Violette prior to leaving the meeting, followed by coworkers, several of whom carried signs.
Violette said that despite the differences between the union and the school committee, “this is not personal and nobody should take it as an insult to teachers.”
“We appreciate all the work employees do for the district and the fact we have not yet reached an agreement with the teacher negotiators does not change any of that,” said Violette, chairman of the school committee’s negotiation committee, which also includes Steve Berry and Noreen Poitras.
Ruthman said in an interview that in recent years more and more responsibility has been heaped on teachers, such as additional teaching requirements, proficiency-based mandates and technology, creating “the perfect storm.” Teachers nationwide feel “they have been devalued.”
The goal, he said, is to hash out an updated contract that takes into account this additional workload.
“It is woefully inadequate to address the conditions we face in our daily lives here,” Ruthman said.
Ruthman said Westbrook loses 18 to 24 educators every year, not due to retirement, but to burnout.
“We want to serve our students. We love our students and have some of the best around, but every day it is getting harder and harder,” he said.
Violette said as much as he wanted to talk about what the School Committee’s negotiation team would like to see in the contract, he could not comment on the dispute until after the fact-finding process plays out and the Maine Labor Relations Board issues its report.
“Once the report is filed, hopefully we can meet again and determine if we accept the fact finding decision or not. Fact finding is non-binding, which means either party can accept or reject the panel’s findings,” Violette said. “We can’t make any comment now because it would be breaking the rules of confidentiality not be fair to the process.”
The two parties had their first fact-finding session May 7 and have another set for Friday, June 8.
The association is bargaining for the teachers, nurses, librarians, guidance councilors and social workers. Administrators are working under an updated contract, which is good through June 30, 2019. The support staff – education technicians, bud drivers, administrative assistants, cafeteria workers, custodians, mechanics and maintenance workers – are under contract until June 30, 2020.
Michael Kelley can be reached at 781-3661 x 125 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mkelleynews.
Westbrook teachers line the hallway outside a School Committee meeting May 9 in support of reaching agreement on a new contract.
Westbrook teachers, who have been working without a contract this school year, made a colorful statement at last week’s school committee meeting.
Ashley Stoddard, an English language learner teacher at Congin School, and Danielle Porter, an English language learner teacher at Saccarappa School, were among the teachers demonstrating last week to shine light on the on-going contract dispute with the School Committee.