Friday, December 31, 2010

Mediator hoping to meet union, district

According to the Courier Times, state mediator John Cairns is intending to set up separate meetings with the Board's negotiation team and representatives from the NFT. The article noted that "Board President Ritchie Webb said that Cairns' intention is to discuss the economy and the district's ability to pay for a contract. After Cairns meets with the union and the board, he could call for another joint bargaining session, Webb said."

In previous statements to the newspaper, Louise Boyd claimed that the board's proposal has remained unchanged for more than two years, while the teachers have offered compromises, including narrowing talking points to exclude issues like class size and considering the board's suggested money-saving, self-insured prescription plan.

Ritchie Webb has countered by saying the board doesn't see those issues as concessions.

To see Mr. Webb's entire response to the Courier Times, visit the board's negotiation website.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

He said/she said, and a modest proposal

It must be confusing to Neshaminy residents to figure out exactly what happened Tuesday night. School Board president Ritchie Webb says that, according to the state appointed mediator, the NFT was not willing to discuss health care. Teacher's union boss Louise Boyd says they were ready to discuss anything and everything. Yet no meeting took place.

It's hard to imagine how two sides can say they are ready to talk about the same things but somehow Tuesday's negotiation meeting never took place. Quoting from a famous movie, an editorial in today's Courier Times refers to it as a failure to communicate. Any way you look at it, this isn't the first time that both sides have had different stories about the exact same meeting. There is a possible solution to this, but I'll save that for later in this post.

Yesterday the NFT's PR firm issued a press release saying that one of the contributors to Tuesday's debacle was a "Blogosphere Sideshow" (sounds suspiciously like "freak show" to me), and that the board is being “Egged on by the teacher-bashing crowd whose venom up to now has been confined to blogs and websites" and that "the district’s negotiators conjured a confrontation that didn't exist, suggesting that teachers are unwilling to compromise.” Ms. Boyd then insisted that their history of negotiations demonstrates their willingness to compromise.

The press release also attempted to explain Boyd's comment to the Inquirer where she said the NFT would not be making concessions as a give-back to the community. According to their PR guru, "Boyd merely stated the belief of NFT members that it is not fair or equitable for the school district to expect teachers to take a cut in overall compensation when their duties and responsibilities are expanding."

But isn't a net reduction in overall compensation exactly what the board and community are looking for? Teachers haven't been asked to take a pay cut or freeze, but they have been asked to start kicking in for health care premiums, and to give up some of the exorbitant benefits they've enjoyed like a $27.5k retirement perk or a very liberal salary step plan. The NFT sees these as cuts while the board/public view it as bringing our costs into line with other districts.

Next year's Act 1 inflationary limit is 1.4%, which means roughly $1.6 million to our budget - that is how much we can increase tax millage in Neshaminy next school year without a referendum. I seriously doubt a referendum would pass, so that doesn't leave us with many options. Either we find ways to reduce our greatest cost driver - labor, or we start cutting student programs. And as you've heard me say time and time again, I am not prepared to do the latter.

So where do we go from here? My suggestion is that we schedule another meeting but let's agree on the agenda prior to the meeting. The agenda should be an official document that is made available to the public so there can be no doubt what is to be discussed. And that leads me to the last point I want to make - how to avoid any more he said/she said incidents . . .

Up until now, I believed that negotiations should take place in private with public updates following afterwards. It's been nearly three years and that hasn't worked, not at all. So now I believe it is time we open up negotiations to the public. I would like to see a small group of observers, including 3 random members of the public and a Courier Times reporter, be invited to all future negotiations. The panel can only observe the proceedings and are not allowed to comment during. However, all are free to speak publicly about what they observed.

Don't get too excited about this idea because it won't likely happen. Even if my fellow board members liked the concept, I'm not so sure that the state mediator or NFT would agree.

So 2010 will end the same way the previous two years did - no progress. Maybe if both sides can agree to change how we negotiate, perhaps 2011 might hold a chance for change.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Talks break down

The following statement was just issued on the Neshaminy School Board's Negotiation Website . . .

Tonight’s 27th meeting between the Board and NFT negotiation teams ended before it began as representatives from the Neshaminy Federation of Teachers refused to discuss the subject of health care, despite recent comments by NFT President Louise Boyd to the contrary

According to School Board President Ritchie Webb, the meeting started out with both parties in separate rooms as is always the case, and the Board directed the State-appointed mediator to ask the NFT to enter the meeting to discuss health care and retro pay. Neshaminy’s solicitor, Chuck Sweet, also asked the mediator to seek clarification from Ms. Boyd on her recent quote to the Philadelphia Inquirer in which she stated that the NFT would not make any concessions.

The mediator left the room and met with the NFT team to propose the Board’s agenda. A few minutes later, the mediator returned and told the Board the NFT did not want to discuss any of those issues, and the mediator said that there was no reason to stay. No meeting was going to take place.

Earlier this evening the NFT, through its PR firm, issued a statement that the Board cancelled tonight’s meeting. Mr. Webb insisted that is completely untrue. “We only proposed a couple of discussion items through the mediator, and we expected the NFT would comply given Ms. Boyd’s recent statements,” Webb said. “I am at a loss to explain why the NFT would say they were open to discussing health care, only to refuse to talk about it tonight, and then blame the meeting cancellation on the Board,” he said.

No new talks have been scheduled.

“The Board remains open to negotiations with the teachers,” Webb continued, “but at some point we have to discuss the issues that the NFT doesn’t seem to want to talk about.”


Thursday, December 23, 2010

Students get head start in a digital art world

From an article appearing in today's Courier Times . . .


That's the first word that came out of Neshaminy High School senior Natalie Tocatlian's mouth when she walked into the revamped digital art computer lab in September.

Twenty-eight brand new, state-of-the-art Apple iMac computers - each containing software designed for digital photo editing, illustration, filmmaking, Web design and 2D and 3D animation - were at her disposal as well as the rest of her classmates.

For the 17-year-old who plans to apply to Drexel University to study computer science, it was like coming downstairs on Christmas morning.

"They are just so nice and smooth and they run real easy," she said last week. "They really help me, program-wise. With the old PCs there were viruses and a lot of restrictions. I can tell they will give me a head start for when I get to college."

You can read the rest of the article by clicking here.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Boyd on concessions: "We're not doing that"

Still hoping that the NFT will make concessions? Here is what Louise Boyd had to say about that in a recent Philadelphia Inquirer article . . .

Boyd, the union leader in Neshaminy, said teachers merely wanted to maintain their standard of living, and she rejected the notion of giving back to help the community. "We're not doing that," she said. "I don't want to make less. I don't want to ask you to make less this year than last year."

Not much I can add to that.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Lots of talk, no concessions

School Board Prez Ritchie Webb just issued this statement about Thursday's meeting with the NFT . . .

"Negotiating session #26 took place last night and lasted about two hours. The main agenda item was the Board's proposal for self insurance, which the NFT did not yet agree to but said they will consider. They did not indicate when they will render a decision on the Board's proposal that will offer the district significant savings.

The major issues have not changed. Health care plan options, employee contributions to health care premiums, retro pay, and salary increases were discussed but neither side made concessions.

Both agreed to meet again on December 28, 2010, 6pm at Maple Point."

Maybe I should be happy that both sides continue to talk, but talks without progress translate into a waste of time in my book. Maybe I'm disappointed that Louise Boyd didn't make at least some token gesture to show that employee health care contributions were truly on the bargaining table. Yes, I naïvely hoped she might throw out some sort of lowball number, like 5%-7%, just to inject some life into these stalled negotiations. But alas, that was not to be. And it looks like my cautious optimism will remain just that - cautious, perhaps with the growing sentiment of skepticism mixed in.

A quick note of thanks to all of you who continue to write emails of support to me and my fellow board members. Your kind words of praise have helped us maintain our focus during these lengthy, exhaustive negotiations.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Board, NFT review self insurance proposal

The following statement was just posted on the Board's Negotiation Website . . .

Negotiation teams from both the Board and NFT met for 3-1/2 hours this evening to discuss the Board's self insurance proposal which would maintain the teachers' prescription benefits while significantly reducing costs. Following presentations from two vendors, both sides had questions which required further research.

Confident that the answers would be available next week, the Board and NFT agreed to meet again on Thursday, December 9th at 6pm.


NFT is on the air

Earlier today, the NFT unveiled some new wrinkles in their PR campaign. A radio commercial has been playing throughout the day on NJ101.5, and a new website has merged onto the information highway.

The message follows suit to what we've been hearing over the past couple of weeks - the NFT is confident that the Neshaminy community will reunite ... the NFT is proposing solutions to the challenges our schools face ... the NFT calls upon the Board to support their proposed solutions.

First it was a full page Ad in the Courier, then hiring a PR advisor, and now it's a new website and radio commercials. Must be nice to have all that money.

Despite the efforts of an expensive and impressive PR campaign, it's too little, too late. Had the NFT used this tactic 2+ years ago, it might have deflected public attention away from the unaffordable costs of the teachers contract. But the public has become informed and involved, and there's nothing that the PR guy can do to spin that.

You can change the conversation, but you can't change reality.

Pardon their spin

From the movie Shrek . . .

Princess Fiona (referring to Donkey): It talks!
Shrek: Yeah, it's getting him to shut up that's the trick!

For more than two years, residents of Neshaminy anxiously awaited an explanation from the NFT of its contract demands. Now with a hired spin doctor on their payroll, the NFT has suddenly become quite talkative. Unfortunately for the public, the NFT's newly-found verbosity offers little more than fluff and smokescreens.

On Tuesday afternoon the NFT issued a highly critical press release which accused District Administration of not wanting to bother making time to discuss educational priorities. Then just yesterday, another NFT statement called on the District to "bring the spirit of compromise" to tonight's negotiation session. First they slap us in the face, and now they want to be friends. A rather curious tactic heading into this evening's meeting, don't you think?

In response to Tuesday's press release, the always-eloquent Dr. Muenker made several very important points . . .

1) The District had already begun work on a strategic plan prior to the NFT calling for one
2) If not for the WTC distraction, the strategic plan might have already been completed
3) Educational priorities should have nothing to do with contract negotiations

Board President Ritchie Webb was less diplomatic in his reply, referring to the NFT's sudden concern about educational priorities as a "stunt."

You can see more reaction to this NFT press release by reading today's Courier Times.

On the heels of Tuesday's statement came another one last night as the NFT challenged the District to come up with another offer. According to NFT President Louise Boyd, "Teachers have already offered two counter-proposals that have included significant compromises ... If school district officials are serious about reaching an agreement, the next proposal needs to come from them."

Ms. Boyd then lists all the NFT's concessions from their counter proposals including:

1) Reducing the cost of the salary proposal, shifting from 4 percent annual raises throughout the term of the contract to a staggered schedule beginning at 2.75 percent.
2) Withdrawing a teacher scheduling proposal, limiting back-to-back-to-back classes.
3) Withdrawing a proposal to embed professional development programs into the job site.
4) Withdrawing a proposal to implement full-day kindergarten, which would be a significant cost saving for the district.
5) Withdrawing a proposal to require reductions in class sizes, saving certified personnel costs.
6) Withdrawing a proposal for co-teaching planning periods, saving certified personnel costs.
7) Withdrawing a proposal to hire additional certified technology teachers.
8) Withdrawing proposed increases in vision care benefits.
9) Proposing increases in employee co-payments for nearly all medical services.

Should I even bother pointing out the fallacies of this argument? Oh heck, why not?

Regarding #1: 2.75% doesn't equal 2.75% - remember the steps? The NFT salary proposal will cost tax payers $11 million just for retro pay, and it will give teachers a 35% pay hike by the 5th year of the agreement. It's completely unaffordable and therefore is no more palatable than their original offer.

Regarding #'s 2, and 4-8: In most of these the NFT has either proposed things that will only inflate the costs of an already expensive contract, or they are asking for things they really have no business asking for in the first place (like Full Day Kindergarten should be a contract issue?).

Regarding #9: This is the one true concession made by the NFT. But what they fail to mention is that due to the implications of the "me too" clauses in the agreements we have with the other labor groups, any cost savings is more than lost. So in essence, this small concession in combination with keeping the Rolls Royce plan will actually cost tax payers more money.

This leaves us with #3, professional development. I actually think ongoing training is a worthy idea. However, training needs are ultimately determined by District Administration, and they can only happen when there is money in the budget to pay for them. So unfortunately for the NFT, this really cannot be a contractual item either, but at least it has some merit.

You can read yesterday's NFT statement by clicking here.

I didn't know what to expect going into tonight's negotiation session, but I was remaining cautiously optimistic given Louise Boyd's recent statements that the NFT was willing to discuss health care. But now reading her latest decree that the next offer must come the Board tells me she has little intention of driving this issue further. She'd rather wait to see if the Board will flinch. I can't wait to read what the NFT spin doctor says about that.