School districts, teachers turn to state mediators

Sorry… not here. The school board will approve anything they’re presented with, unless it has to do with taping the meetings for all to see on TV. More on that later.

Fall doesn’t just represent a time when kids return to school. It’s also usually the time when school districts and teachers unions return to the negotiating table to try and hammer out a labor deal.

With the 2009-10 school year nearly a month old, four local districts and their teachers are looking to Albany to help solve their labor differences.

Minisink Valley, Washingtonville, Kingston and Onteora have all declared impasses in teacher contract negotiations and are seeking mediation help from the state Public Employment Relations Board. A PERB mediator has helped Tri-Valley broker a tentative agreement.

Statewide, PERB says 53 districts have declared impasses, up from 47 a year ago. Rick Curreri, director of PERB’s Office of Conciliation, which handles mediation, doesn’t believe it’s a huge increase. But he says economic uncertainty may be making both districts and teachers unions more uncertain on what their demands should be, and how firm they should be.

“I think both sides are a little bit reticent on anything beyond the near term,” Curreri says. “You may be seeing parties trying to wait until … there’s more certainty in the economy.”

Especially the struggling state economy. School districts did not get the expected increase in state funding for this year and the only reason the funding stayed at the same level as last year was because of federal stimulus money. Next year’s state funding is expected to be flat as well, and Gov. David Paterson is already making noise that the state’s budget deficit could be worse than expected.

“We have been fortunate that inflation is relatively low,” says Carl Korn of New York State United Teachers. “At the same time, we don’t know what the state’s finances are.”

In some cases, Curreri says, districts may be choosing mediation to get negotiations moving again. In the case of Minisink Valley and Washingtonville, whose previous contracts expired at the end of the 2008-09 school year, the two sides mutually declared an impasse. Korn says they will meet with the PERB mediator at the end of next month.

Minsink Valley Superintendent Martha Murray said the district and teachers went the mediation route when the last contract expired in June 2006. By November 2006, the mediator had brokered a deal.

“It’s still early,” Murray says. “I’m hopeful a mediator can get us together to help us with our issues and reach an agreement.””

Source: Times Herald-Record September 25, 2009

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