Contract dismay

To the Editor:

I read with dismay Beth Dilley’s letter to the editor of June 25, (“Under Attack”) in which she decried a loss of mutual respect in school-teacher contract negotiations.

I understand that a significant percentage of the rest of the teaching staff have endorsed her statements. I also am similarly disturbed to learn that the Mount Desert Elementary School teachers abandoned the “common contract” negotiations and dealt with the Mount Desert Elementary School board separately.

While none of us not in the room can know the particulars of the negotiations because they are confidential, some obvious trends emerge in public, especially for anyone who has been through this process before, including with some of the current participants.

For nine years, I served on the school board and served on every negotiating committee during that time. I was an active participant in the formation of the common contract process and witnessed the development and deepening of the comity between the parties that Dilley refers to.

That mutual respect is an asset that did not always previously exist. It is an asset to the children of the community in a great many ways, somewhat intangible, but no less valuable. It is an asset like any other that can be, but should not be, spent recklessly.

Teachers are expected to do so much for our children. A lot of it is in the “above and beyond” category. No employee is going to go above and beyond for an employer who does not convey mutual respect. A rigid approach to negotiations isn’t being tough, and it isn’t the smartest way of looking out for the taxpayers. It’s being self-defeating and shortsighted.

Like it or not, we have to pay more in salaries and benefits for our teachers than comparable schools off island. We have to take care that our schools are positive places to work. Many teachers can’t afford to live here. How many of our teachers every day drive past other schools to get to one of ours? Do you like commuting? How much is it worth? Wouldn’t you rather work in your hometown for something close to the same benefits if you saved gas money and the hassle of Route 3 in the afternoon, and if you were feeling ill-used here?

Sometimes it’s necessary to be very stingy. Right after the economy took a swan dive in 2007, we had to negotiate a contract. We had to convince the teachers they should get a zero increase. Teachers rose to the occasion and supported that move with little resistance. We did that without alienating the teachers. We did it together.

But, by the time I left the board, it was clear to me that some board members held fixed positions on subjects that seemed too often to be driven more by attitude than by facts that could readily be shared and agreed to. I lament the reports that suggest that the manner in which that attitude is being projected now seems to be doing significant damage to the relationship between the board and staff that may ultimately prove to be far more costly than any financial benefit gained from changes in insurance premium costs.

The common contract itself is a commodity to be valued and protected. Prior to the common contract, we had five different teacher contracts. Now it would be six with Trenton in the system. Each had very different terms, salaries and benefits. It was an expensive and poor use of the administration’s time to negotiate and administer many different contracts. It likely would be a strong negative in attracting a quality superintendent, which the board now will need to do.

Before the common contract, the salary disparity between schools in some cases had grown extreme. Higher paying schools often benefited from their pick of the teacher crop. If you come from a high-paying town, you may think that’s best for your students. But, the morality of that perspective aside, in the end, your students co-mingle at the high school with other students who have come from a less advantaged environment.

I strongly urge all parties, most especially my former board colleagues, to redouble their efforts to be guided by the sort of “getting to yes” strategy that Dilley wistfully recalled in her letter. A contract lasts for a term of just a few years. The negative fallout from a dysfunctional relationship can last for a generation.

Gail Marshall

Mount Desert

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