‘The Year of the Contract’ in Windham

February 28, 2014
by Barbara O’Brien

Windham Selectman Roger Hohenberger summed up the status of this year’s election when he dubbed it “The Year of the Contract.”

Not only are three union contracts on the town ballot for 2014, but two proposed contracts also are on the school side of the ledger.  On Tuesday, March 11, Windham voters will be asked to decide on municipal, fire and police contracts, as well as a proposed contract for teachers and one for instructional assistants (teacher aides).  It was certainly not planned to present all these proposals to residents at one time.  The year of the contract is the result of failed contracts and failed negotiations in prior years.

The proposed contract for members of the fire union calls for no retroactive raises for 2011 through 2013, the period during which no new contract was negotiated.  For 2014, fire union employees would receive a cost of living adjustment of 2.5 percent ($74,820 total increase), 2 percent for 2015 ($33.990 total increase) and 2 percent for 2016 ($34,230 total increase) and 2 percent through March 31 of 2017 ($9,150 total increase).  In addition, employee health insurance copayments would increase from 20 to 25 percent of the premiums.

The proposed contract for members of the police union also calls for no retroactive pay increase for the past three years.  Cost of living adjustment increases for 2014 would be tabulated at 2.5 percent ($195,770 total increase), 2.5 percent for 2015 ($58,010 total increase), 2 percent for 2016 ($48,520 total increase) and 2 percent through March 31 of 2017 ($9,350 total increase).

Although there is no retroactive pay for police union employees, the proposed contract does provide a one-time lump sum payment for eight employees who did not receive any step increases from 2011 through April 1, 2014.  That lump sum totals $55,410.  According to selectmen, this lump sum payment is far lower than making full retroactive payments for the step increases that were not recognized for the past three years.  In addition, copayments for health insurance premiums would increase from 20 to 25 percent.

The proposed contract for municipal union employees calls for a 2 percent cost of living adjustment on April 1 of 2014, 2015 and 2016.  For 2014, the total increase would amount to $16,290; for 2015 it would be $20,340; for 2016 would amount to $20,460; and for a portion of 2017 would be $5,020.  These figures are based solely on current staffing levels.  Municipal union employees would also see an increase in the copayments for health insurance premiums from 20 to 25 percent, if the contract is approved by voters.

Selectmen unanimously support the proposed contracts for fire and municipal union employees (5 to 0).  As for the police union contract, however, Selectman Roger Hohenberger voted against supporting the proposal.  Hohenberger said he withheld his support due to a pending lawsuit regarding additional money being sought for step increases missed during the past few years.  Selectman Al Letizio said he still feels all of the proposed contracts are “a great deal overall.”  Letizio said he feels the town would lose a lot if any of the contracts were put on hold.  “I support all the contracts across the board,” Letizio said.  “I feel they are a great deal for the town and the staff.”

On the school side, the last collective bargaining agreement with the teachers expired in July 2011.  For the past three school years, this has meant no increases to the salary schedule and no progression on “steps” associated with additional years of experience.  As for the current proposed contract, teachers and school board members have been in negotiations since last August.  Although an impasse was reached late last year, mediation was successful and the proposed contract was ratified.

As for the monetary cost of approving the teacher contract, the total amount for fiscal year 2014-2015 would be $488,269 and $505,237 for 2015-2016.  The teacher contract would also include increased cost-sharing in the area of health care benefits, with higher percentages being paid for premiums and prescription drugs.  According to school board information, under the new agreement, teachers would be paying six to seven times more toward their health care than they were under the old contract.  According to school board member Jerome Rekart, the school district would see a savings of $359,000 in the first year of the contract, due to changes in health insurance benefits, and even more in future years.

The proposed teacher contract would allow for some restoration of missed step increases.  For a teacher hired prior to 2010, there would be a recovery of one step in year one of the contract and the recovery of a second step in year two of the contract.  For a teacher hired in 2011, there would be a one year recovery in year one, but no recovery in year two of the contract.  For a teacher hired in 2013, there would be no recovery of steps and no advancement of a step in 2014.

School board members voted 4 to 0 to support the proposed teacher contract.  Voting in favor were Vice-Chairman Stephanie Wimmer and board members Michelle Farrell, Jerome Rekart and Dennis Senibaldi.  Chairman Michael Joanis recused himself from voting, as his wife is employed as a teacher in the Windham School District.

Selectman Al Letizio, who formerly served on the school board, said he believes the proposal “is a great deal; a great contract.”  School board candidate Rob Breton said he is also in favor of the proposed contract.  “It’s a good deal for teachers and the town,” Breton said.  “We need to move the needle forward,” he said, making reference to the years that there was no new contract approved.

The proposed contract for instructional assistants would mean an estimated total salary increase of $66,247 for 2014-2015, $72,149 for 2015-2016 and $66,224 for 2016-2017.  The last collective bargaining agreement with the instructional assistants expired in July of 2013.  For the current school year, there are no increases to the salary schedule and no progression steps associated with additional years of experience.  Instructional assistants are hourly employees and do not receive any employer contribution to health care or dental benefits.  All instructional assistants would be credited with their years of service in Windham and placed appropriately on the wage schedule.  A 1 percent increase would be added to the wage schedule.

The instructional assistant contract is fully supported by the school board (5 to 0).  “They do everything we ask them to do and more,” Rekart commented.

Registered voters will get to have their say on all these proposed contracts on Tuesday, March 11.  The polls will be located at Windham High School and open from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m.  Don’t forget to cast your ballot!