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Negotiations with city teachers collapse; Gatsas to take over talks

New Hampshire Union Leader

December 10. 2013 12:19AM

MANCHESTER — The school board has voted to have Mayor Ted Gatsas take over negotiations with the teachers' union, after the subcommittee that had been conducting the talks failed to reach an agreement.

Ward 10 school board member John Avard, the chair of the board's negotiations subcommittee, said at Monday's meeting that he was "disappointed" that months of talks did not yield an agreement with the Manchester Education Association.

Avard requested that the subcommittee be dissolved. The request was a formality, as all committees will be reappointed in January when the newly elected school board is sworn in.

"We're disappointed we can't present contracts to the board," Avard said, while thanking his fellow subcommittee members, its attorney, the administration, as well as the three district employee unions that did reach agreements with the group.

The unions representing paraprofessionals and administrators agreed to deals with the committee that significantly raised health care contribution rates to 15 to 20 percent, while giving the employees a 2.17 percent yearly pay increase based on the tax cap.

The MEA, which represents the largest number of employees in the city, and the union representing school support personnel rejected similar offers.

Last month, the Water Works union became the last of the city unions that had rejected contract concessions in 2012 to reach a deal with the city. The contract raised health care premium rates to 17.5 percent and gave employees a 1 percent yearly raise over two years.

Following Avard's announcement, at-large board member David Wihby made a motion to have Mayor Gatsas take over as the school board representative for the negotiations, in the hopes that a deal might be reached in the "three to four weeks we have left."

Gatsas replied, "Only if the superintendent is willing."

Superintendent Debra Livingston expressed her support, and the board voted for the motion unanimously.

The vote puts Gatsas back in a familiar position in negotiating directly with the teachers' union. Last spring, the board voted to have its own committee lead the talks, a move that upset Gatsas.

The mayor has expressed disapproval over the cost of the negotiations, and has indicated the lack of a deal with the teachers is a major strain on the city's finances.

Since July 1, the teachers' union has been working without a contract; the teachers continue to pay single-digit health care premiums but are ineligible for any pay raises.

The recent agreement with the Water Works union will likely serve as a new impetus for the talks.

Ben Dick, the president of the MEA, said Monday evening that he welcomed the chance to sit down with the mayor. But he said that the teachers' unique circumstances have to be taken into account.

"People are going to say other people made a deal. What they fail to mention is those groups agreed to 17.5 percent (health care premium rate), and agreed to get their salary schedule funded plus a 1 percent (raise); not one of those things were afforded to us," Dick said, referring to the Water Works deal.

But, Dick insisted, he wants to reach an agreement.

"Absolutely; we want a deal done as much as anyone," he said.

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