MANCHESTER — City school board members voted Monday to reject a request from Mayor Joyce Craig for authorization for Manchester’s new superintendent of schools to take over negotiations between the teachers union and the district, following months of contract talks without a new deal.
The request failed by one vote, with eight school board members opposed — Rich Girard, Kathleen Arnold, Lisa Freeman, Ross Terrio, Jimmy Lehoux, Art Beaudry, John Avard, and Kelly Thomas.
Seven members voting in favor of the request were Craig, Sarah Ambrogi, Mary Georges, Leslie Want, Katie Desrochers, Pat Long and Dan Bergeron.
The most recent agreement with the more than 1,100 members of the Manchester Education Association expired on June 30, 2018. That month, union members declared an impasse, with union leadership citing an inability to find “common ground” and school officials blaming teacher salary proposals they said topped $20 million over three years.
This past June, both sides declared they were ready to “return to the table,” after union and school officials voted to reject the results of a fact finder’s report on the negotiations, which cited “four major obstacles for the parties to overcome in order to reach even a partial agreement”: salaries and salary scale, health insurance, paid time off vs. sick leave, and pending state legislation.
On Monday, Craig asked school board members to authorize Superintendent of Schools John Goldhardt, along with a negotiator, to take over talks with the MEA.
“I want to applaud the members of the Special Committee on Negotiations for their hard work since they began negotiations in February 2017, more than 18 months ago,” wrote Craig in a memo to board members. “But as we enter our second straight school year without an agreement with our teachers and we now have all bargaining units out of contract, it is time for a fresh approach to finding agreements with our educators.”
Craig stressed her request is not a reflection on the work of the school board’s Special Committee on Negotiations.
“They have worked hard, in good faith, to find sustainable contracts for our educators and the district,” writes Craig. “However, I believe a new perspective, with a new superintendent now on board, is required.”
Negotiations committee members include school board members Ambrogi, Desrochers, Lehoux, Terrio and Girard.
MEA President Sue Hannan addressed Craig’s request during the during the public forum portion of Monday’s meeting, saying the stalled talks were having a negative impact on teacher morale.
“Personalities must be taken out of the equation,” said Hannan.
Prior to the vote, Goldhardt addressed the issue of whether he wanted to take over negotiations with the unions.
“Personally, I don’t want to see a divided board,” said Goldhardt. “I realize this is not always possible. My preference would be to have a more united board than a divided board. I believe the individuals from both sides of this issue have the best intentions. I also believe the mayor has the best intentions with her request.”
But would he want to handle negotiations?
“Who in their right mind would want to do this?” asked Goldhardt. “However, if the board itself is united I would reluctantly be willing to do this. In regards to negotiations, I am no doormat. I will not be stepped and stomped on. I have definite views on staying within the budget we have, and not the one we wish we had. I am not here to serve as a pawn for political purposes.”
“Until now, this committee has been of one voice,” said Girard. “Everyone knows the best way to defeat your enemy is to divide and conquer.”
“I didn’t do this to divide the board,” said Craig. “I feel that there’s been enough time for the committee to do this. My opinion is that we should try something new.”
On Tuesday, Girard thanked those board members that voted in support of keeping the current negotiations committee intact.
“They understood that dismantling the committee for the actions of bargaining units made no sense whatsoever,” said Girard. “I also want to reinforce what I said (Monday) night. If the members of our negotiating team truly believe a ‘fresh approach’ is needed, then I encourage them to resign and make way for new blood, especially Katie Desrochers. She knows as well as anyone how the MEA’s negotiators have conducted themselves, including refusing to even talk for about twelve of the last 18 months.”
Victoria Sullivan, running against Craig for mayor of Manchester, called her opponent’s request to have Goldhardt take over negotiations a “purely political attempt to divide and circumvent the work of the bipartisan special committee.”
“Our school board is elected to be the voice of Manchester taxpayers and families,” said Sullivan. “It is appalling that our mayor would seek to go around them to benefit her own campaign.”