April 07, 2020

Teachers in Brewer hold vigil before meeting

BREWER – Local educators and their supporters continued Monday night to press for a resolution to their contract dispute with the school committee.

Although many other issues were addressed during the school committee’s annual organizational meeting, discussion about the contract impasse, now entering its fourth month, eclipsed most of the other topics on the meeting agenda.

Superintendent Allan Snell said earlier that the previous contract with the Brewer Education Association expired Aug. 31. Since then, teachers have continued working under the terms of their previous labor pact.

Representatives from both sides of the divide say that salary and benefits are the two main points of contention in a dispute that has been not only contentious but also costly.

Among teachers’ objections is that the school committee hired the Portland law firm Drummond, Woodsum & MacMahon as its representative. City tax dollars pay the firm, union members say. The cost of the teachers’ MEA negotiator is built into their dues.

In response to questions from the audience, Snell said negotiations had so far cost nearly $25,000 spread over two fiscal years. Business manager Lester Young said officials budgeted $16,000. Snell said the nearly $9,000 shortfall will be made up within the budget line for administrative expenses.

As the contract dispute plods on, BEA members have brought attention to their cause by picketing at local schools and public meetings and by taping to their vehicle windows fliers that read “Another Brewer teacher without a contract.” They’ve also circulated a pamphlet urging the public to support them by attending committee meetings.

On Monday, they conducted a candlelight vigil before the school committee meeting. During the vigil, BEA Vice President Teresa England said that the contract conflict has had an adverse impact on teacher morale.

Later in the meeting, England and other teachers cited dozens of contributions, both in terms of time and money, teachers have given to their schools that go beyond the duties expected of them.

England speculated that committee members and the public might not be aware of these contributions. She said these benefactions amounted to thousands of dollars spent on supplies and treats that teachers purchased with their own money as well as time spent with students on outings and special projects.

Given the current state of affairs, she said, “Some teachers question how much longer they can continue to give, and that’s a sad thing,” she said.

Though committee Chairwoman Mary Ann McGuire said that school officials were prevented from discussing the contract under state labor laws, England and others in the audience had plenty to say.

Michele “Mike” McLellan, a local parent, school volunteer and write-in candidate for school committee in last month’s elections, asked why negotiations were taking so long. “Hello, let’s move it along,” she said with a snap of her fingers. “This is important to a lot of people.”

Teacher Deb Footman alleged that the problem was not due to a lack of money. “The money is there,” she said. “They are choosing not to allocate it.” She, too, said the dispute was taking its toll on morale, and that was bad for pupils. “You people are hurting the children. We are not.”

The labor dispute here has been heating up since early February, when the school committee rejected a tentative contract agreement in a 5-0 vote.

Since then, three mediation sessions have failed to result in an agreement and the dispute moved into the fact-finding phase. The second of two fact-finding sessions was conducted Nov. 9.

A three-member fact-finding panel now is processing arguments presented by both sides of the dispute and will soon issue a report to include, among other things, a recommendation for resolution.

Should that fail to result in a new contract, the two groups will proceed to arbitration, the results of which are binding except in the areas of wages, pensions and insurance.

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