BAR HARBOR — Teachers at two schools in the Mount Desert Island Regional School System (MDIRSS) have blocked ratification of a system-wide teachers’ contract hammered out by union leaders and school board members.
The two parties have been working for the past 13 months to negotiate a new three-year contract. The current contract expires Aug. 31.
Ratification of a system-wide “common contract” requires the approval of a majority of teachers at each school in the system.
In voting last week, teachers at three schools approved the proposed contract, while those at two schools rejected it. School officials and a teachers’ union representative declined to name those two schools.
“We are technically still in negotiations, so information like that is all still kept confidential,” said Amanda Dyer, a kindergarten teacher at Conners Emerson School in Bar Harbor. She is the lead negotiator for the teachers.
Teachers at Mount Desert Elementary were part of the system-wide negotiations for nearly a year. But they decided in the winter to withdraw from those negotiations, choosing instead to negotiate directly with the Mount Desert School committee. Those talks are still ongoing.
The five other school committees – for Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor, Tremont, Trenton and MDI High – scheduled special meetings for this past Monday, May 18, hoping to be able to give final approval to the new teacher contract. But with the outcome of the teachers’ vote, those meetings were cancelled.
Instead, the MDIRSS board, which is made of up members of the individual school committees, met in closed session Monday evening to discuss the situation and how to proceed.
Board chairman Skip Strong, who also is the lead negotiator for the school committees, said the only decision to come out of that meeting was to bring back the professional mediator who has been working with the two parties to see if the sticking points can be resolved. The mediator, John Alfano of Biddeford, is to meet with the two sides during the first week of June.
“We’re going to wait and see what happens then,” Strong said. “We’re not going to take any action at this point.”
He had said earlier on Monday that he was disappointed by the decision by teachers at two schools to reject the proposed new contract.
“It’s a setback. It’s been a long process, and we obviously would like to have had it done,” he said. “But we will get through it. Everyone wants this wrapped up as fast as possible.”
School officials have said they want to offer teachers “competitive” salaries and “sustainable” benefits. But what teachers consider fair and school officials consider sustainable might not be the same.
Last year, when Ingrid Kachmar was running for reelection to the Southwest Harbor school committee, she said she favored negotiating a new contract that was less generous, particularly in terms of health insurance.
Under the current contract, the schools pay 85 percent of the premium for a teacher’s “single, two-adult, family or adult with child(ren)” insurance plan.
“There isn’t a school board member on this island who doesn’t agree that our current compensation structure is unsustainable,” Kachmar said at last year’s candidates forum. “So, we are committed to figuring out a way to create a contract that is beneficial to the teachers and to the taxpayers.”
Kachmar was one of the MDIRSS board members who negotiated the current contract. She is on the MDIRSS team trying to work out a new one.
The designers of the current school system structure, which has been in place since 2009, felt that having a common, system-wide teacher contract would have the advantage of avoiding disparities in salaries and benefits from one school to another. But, while achieving a common contract is the goal, it is not mandatory. So, like the teachers at Mount Desert Elementary, those at each of the other schools could negotiate their own contracts.
The lack of a new common contract agreement is holding up the hiring of new teachers for next school year.
“For now, I am intentionally holding off on issuing notices of new contracts for our teachers, only because it’s unclear exactly how negotiations will settle out,” Superintendent Howard Colter told the MDIRSS board Monday. “It’s unfortunate. Normally by now, people have been issued contracts and returned them. We’re going to try to get a note out soon explaining what’s going on and why.”