Sides 'Agree to Disagree' on School District Contracts
Entities waiting on state-appointed mediator.
The Montville Township Board of Education and Montville Township Education Association (MTEA) remain in a holding pattern on contract negotiations more than a month after an impasse was declared. Board President Karen Cortellino said they are now waiting to be assigned a mediator by the state.
Cortellino sits on the district negotiating committee with Board Vice President Matthew Kayne, the committee chairman, and board member Jackie Ritschel. The teachers, under MTEA, consolidated in October with custodians, secretaries and paraprofessionals to become one bargaining unit, causing some delays in the discussions.
“We met about 10 times starting last May,” Cortellino said. “In October, the teachers, custodians, paraprofessionals and secretaries all asked to be covered under the umbrella of the teachers’ unit. They were consolidated and are all now one unit.
Cortellino said that while talks were professional, respectful and friendly, an impasse was mutually declared after the March 7 meeting. Paperwork was filed through Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) and a mediator will be assigned. There are three levels of impasse resolution—mediation, arbitration and super conciliation, none of which are binding. Most settlements occur during mediation.
“The board is trying to do the best thing and the teachers are trying to do the best thing,” Cortellino said. "I think it will stay positive.”
MTEA President Anthony Varuolo and committee chairwoman Kathy Klein, a teacher for 21 years at Cedar Hill Elementary School, agree that negotiations have been hopeful. Klein said this year’s round of talks is very different from the previous one because of the board members who are involved.
“I think the fact that Karen Cortellino is the president and Matt Kayne is the vice president has made a big difference,” Klein said.
Klein said the meetings now consist of 12 MTEA representatives—three paraprofessionals, three secretaries, three teachers, two custodian maintenance workers and the state representative, facing six district representatives—three board members, two attorneys and the business administrator. She suggested a “meet and greet” to help develop rapport at the first meeting.
Kayne said the relationship has remained respectful and understanding, but there are areas they couldn’t resolve themselves.
“I think at this point in time we’re hoping the third party assistance will help us to reach an agreement,” Kayne said. “There are a number of pieces that have to come together and hopefully we can find that exact equilibrium that will make both sides happy.”
According to Klein, there are only three full-time mediators and one part-time mediator available for the whole state. The waiting is frustrating after the amount of time and effort put in by everyone involved.
“We waited so long and worked so hard to avoid this because it would put a delay in the process,” she said. ”But I can look back and say in all honesty that we did everything we could to represent both sides respectfully and to understand where everybody was coming from. But we had to agree to disagree—and that’s why the third party.”
Varuolo said the contracts for all parties will be now settled upon at the same time, and could be done as either four separate contracts or condensed into one. There are up to 460 people involved in the settlement.
Kayne said he expects the process to take more time now that the entities have consolidated, but there is no way to predict how long. The state-appointed mediator will bring a more global perspective, but mediators are different, and some are better than others.
“I hope we’re not sitting here talking another six months from now,” he said. “There’s no question that the PERC decision changed things and we all knew that the combined units would take longer. It seems as if the best way to handle it is everything together, and that’s the approach of both parties. But it just takes longer to iron out each individual area.
“It’s a matter of once we get involved in dealing with the mediator, what both sides feel is a good compromise and hopefully we’ll reach it," Kayne said. "It’s a difficult time for everyone right now with the state economy and the national economy being what it is and we just all have to work together.”
Varuolo said he’s an optimist and hopes the negotiations are timely.
“I really feel both sides have an understanding of what the final agreement will look like. As a general rule, I’m an optimist. I’m hopeful the negotiations won’t last too much longer. I’m hopeful both sides will reach an agreement. We anticipated, based on the makeup of the board’s team, that it would be a more respectful atmosphere than last time. I think everybody understands that negotiation is give-and-take, so that doesn’t change now that we go to mediation," he said.
Cortellino and Kayne attribute the positive tone of the negotiations to a combination of quality leadership, driven by School Superintendent Dr. Paul Fried, and a staff that has remained constant despite changes over the years. Fried is not directly involved in the talks, but comes to the table as needed and acts as a resource.
“Paul has done a great job getting the board to trust the administration,” Cortellino said. “He’s a wonderful leader. He makes you want to follow him. We have had several administrations, but the one thing that’s been constant is the staff. If it hadn’t been for them, we would have faltered. We had a good foundation and we still do. What Dr. Fried brings is good, strong leadership.“
Kayne said he could sense change in the district, and credits Fried for his vision.
“The board’s direction is definitely toward letting our employees know that we hope for them to be comfortable, and I think, most importantly, everything is led by our chief administrator, Dr. Fried,” said Kayne. “He’s thorough. He’s thoughtful. His communication abilities are the best I’ve seen, in terms of being complete. He’s got vision and goals and he’s driving the district forward in a way that he feels will be best for the district."
Klein believes in educating the members and said she gave them full disclosure at the end of March. She said salaries, healthcare benefits and the workday are important to them, because time is money. They aren’t in the meetings seeing the process, but they are the ones who have to ratify the contract.
“It’s about the past, the present and the future,” she said.
Klein said she enjoys being part of a team and hearing the different thoughts and perspectives. She felt that the team worked well together with all the different bargaining groups as one. She wants to get the bargaining out of the way so she can get back to teaching.
“I’m here first and foremost because I love teaching and working with children," she said. "When I’m here from 8:05 (a.m.) to 3:05 (p.m.), I just want to be the best teacher that I can be. I don’t want to be distracted with anything else, because all that other stuff is a distraction and I just want to focus and do what in my heart is the right thing to do.”