By NICK GRABBE
Saturday, December 19, 2009
AMHERST - The union representing teachers and staff has agreed to talk about possible give-backs in negotiated raises for next year in response to what could possibly be a $4 million budget shortfall.
Meanwhile, the union president said teachers' discussions with principals about possible reduction in staff and School Committee budget meetings this month have hurt employee morale.
The Amherst Pelham Education Association, representing about 550 employees, voted overwhelmingly Dec. 10 to agree to Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez's request to enter wage discussions, said president Timothy Sheehan, a teacher at Fort River School. He will represent the union in the talks, which may start in early January, he said.
"It makes sense and it's the right thing to do," he said.
Next year is the final one of the current contract and union members are due to receive 3 percent cost-of-living raises; some will also receive "step" increases. The total salary increase is 5 percent for the regional schools and 4 percent for the elementary schools, according to Finance Director Rob Detweiler.
The cost of these increases in next year's budget is $1.3 million. The estimated shortfall under a worst-case scenario is $4 million.
The current average teacher salaries in Amherst are $57,877 in the elementary schools and $56,603 in the regional schools, according to Kathy Mazur, the human resources director.
The School Committee will be represented in the talks by members Irv Rhodes and Steve Rivkin of Amherst and Farshid Hajir of Leverett. Rodriguez and Mazur will also be present. Attorneys for the union and the administration will be there, Sheehan said.
"We want to be open-minded and have a frank discussion," he said.
Rodriguez made a specific proposal to the union, Sheehan said, but declined to say what it was. Even if the union gave up all of its cost-of-living increases, there would still be a sizable budget gap, he said.
Teachers are concentrating on students' needs even as their jobs or those of their colleagues are on the line, Sheehan said. As programs and even entire departments sit on the chopping block, "people try to find ways to be supportive of each other," he said.
"It's tough to watch as the School Committee looks at priorities, to see if your program is a priority," he said.
On the elementary level, teachers also worry about whether they will be assigned to a different building next year because of redistricting, said Michael Morris, principal of Crocker Farm School.
"It's impossible for people not to be affected" by the discussions of budget cuts, he said.
At the Dec. 8 School Committee meeting, Latin teacher Sean Smith read a statement expressing the staff's anxiety over budget cuts, on behalf of 14 department heads.
"We are mourning the anticipated loss of colleagues, some of whom we have worked with for decades," he said. He referred to "this process of dismantling and reshaping our school."
"While we consider the damaging effects these cuts will have on the educational experience of our children, let us also consider the teachers in our schools whose lives will be turned upside down as a result of losing their jobs," he said.
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.