Ahead of a mediation session this Tuesday between representatives of the Manchester Education Association (MEA) and the school district’s negotiations team, a newsletter sent by union leadership updating the membership on the talks contains some interesting tidbits.

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According to the newsletter:

What are the priorities at the table?

“Salary, benefits, and anything to do with compensation like sick days are always the priority. Beyond that, we are pushing for your rights and working conditions.”

“ ‘If we don’t get a contract, I’m going to quit the MEA.’ Choosing to give it up because of a difficult time, or because of who is in leadership, or because of the cost puts you at a big disadvantage. Your membership carries with it a million dollar liability policy. With the rise of reported behaviors to the DOE, the anxiety our educators experience daily and often act out on, and the multiple times we have had to represent people who post their frustrations online and are reported to the administration, that policy alone is worth every penny of the dues.”

“Are we really abusing our sick time? Yes and no.”

“Again, data is always manipulated to show what they want you to see. We do use a lot of sick days, which translates into days we are not in front of children, and providing services for them. But is it everyone who is using almost every sick day they have? No.”

And lastly…

“Why didn’t we go to mediation sooner?”

“We were doing pretty well with negotiations for quite a while. Both sides thought we could find the ‘fix’ that would work for both sides and get us to an agreement. We were working from the same proposal and adding nuances and tweaks that brought us closer to a good product. MEA asked for mediation because there were no more meetings scheduled and we needed to force a meeting.”

After reviewing a copy of the newsletter, at-large school board member Rich Girard, chair of the district’s negotiations committee, issued a statement on behalf of the committee taking issue with some of the comments.

“With mediation just days away, we are concerned by the Manchester Education Association’s message to its membership,” Girard’s statement reads. “We disagree strongly with their characterization of the status of negotiations, especially the claim that they had to invoke mediation to force a meeting. That said, in the hope and spirit of reaching an agreement, we will reserve further comment until after the mediation is completed on Tuesday. If it fails either to produce an agreement or continued negotiations, we will provide the public with a full accounting of our efforts since returning to the table on November 3rd.”

Late last week MEA President Sue Hannan defended the comments, claiming the MEA and other units have had “an extremely difficult time trying to schedule meetings with the board’s negotiations team.”

“MEA was willing to meet when the mediator called in sick, since we had a complete day set aside for it,” Hannan wrote in a statement provided to the Union Leader. “The BOSC committee did not want to meet, even though it was encouraged by the mediator. MEA looks forward to our meeting on Tuesday. Our main objective is to continue to give our full attention to our students, and provide them with the best education we can to Manchester’s public school children. MEA takes opposition to Mr. Girard’s statement that he will provide a full accounting of the negotiations, since they are closed and confidential. He would have to declare impasse in order to do that. We are not at impasse.”

The contract stalemate reared its head during recent discussions over the start date for the 2019-20 school year.

School board members voted to have teachers attend workshops on Aug. 30 and Sept. 3, with students starting classes on Wednesday, Sept. 4.

Initially, outgoing Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bolgen Vargas submitted a proposal that had teachers attending workshops on Aug. 28 and 29, and students returning to classes Tuesday, Sept. 3. Speaking during the public forum portion of the school board meeting, Hannan said because union members remain without a contract teachers are operating under work-to-rule — and language in the last contract dictates school doesn’t start before Sept. 3.

“Our school year does not start until Sept. 1 or after,” Hannan said. “Should we settle a contract, that may be able to change some things, but at this point we are working to the letter of the contract and we will stick with the Sept. 1 or after.”

Vargas said his calendar proposal provided for Friday off and a long, four-day family weekend, which resolves “parent issues of returning to work on Tuesday, but students are not in school.”

“I understand it, the position of the union, however I don’t believe that is the best calendar for our teachers or our kids,” Vargas said. “Typically Labor Day in this part of the country, and throughout the United States, for many families is a long weekend. Our teachers have families, they work extremely hard.”

Vargas said his proposal achieved two things.

“One, it gives our families a long weekend, our teachers a long weekend, and — more significantly — better instruction to begin our school year, similar to that of our surrounding districts,” Vargas said. “Many districts do begin instruction even much earlier then Labor Day.

“We all know we are in New England and you don’t control the weather here. I know districts here in the state of New Hampshire had to remain open way into June for the reason that they had too many snow days, and if that were to happen here it would make matters worse starting the school year late.”

Paul Feely is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. Reach him at pfeely@unionleader.com.