Harkness Speaks to Patch on Teacher Contract Impasse

Westford School Committee chairman Angela Harkness has indicated that the School Committee needs to provide more information.

After this weekend’s announcement from the Westford Education Association, School Committee chairwoman Angela Harkness told Westford Patch on Monday that new measures are now likely necessary in order to break the contract negotiation deadlock.

“I’m sort of at a loss where we go from here,” said Harkness. “Obviously we’ll have to continue negotiating, although I’ve been trying to think really hard why the offer was rejected.”

Although Harkness stated that she believes neither side wants to see layoffs or reduced programs for students, at this point her belief is that further information is needed to convince the teachers that the School Committee has been earnest in their position that no money is currently available for step increases previously agreed upon in earlier contracts.

That belief also extends to the eventual public disclosure of details surrounding the contract negotiations and subsequent mediations between the two sides.

This had been previously prohibited by an informal agreement both sides took in order to facilitate an agreement.

Although WEA advocates have stated continued claims by School Department officials that Westford’s per-pupil costs are significantly less than comparable districts, Harkness noted that the current budget situation was brought on by increasing costs in expenses outside of the town’s control such as healthcare costs, fuel prices, and other issues tied to federal education mandates.

Harkness also noted that the School Committee offered a two year contract instead of a three year contract in the hopes of restoring some benefits when the national economic climate improves, but she stands by the Committee’s recommendation to retain staff brought on board by expiring federal funding, such as the ED Jobs Bill.

“It’s called the ED Jobs bill, because it provided money for jobs. Back then, unemployment was the biggest problem we were experiencing,” she said. “And coincidentally, we needed people in those positions. So, we hired people that we needed and used money that was supposed to be allocated to putting people back to work to do that. Did we understand that in a couple of years that money was going away? Yes. But does that mean we should have turned the money down? I don’t think so.”

Ultimately, Harkness believes that the School Committee has no other options given the town’s current economic situation, particularly given the fact that the School Department has been the only Department to receive additional funding over the past two years.

“I know there’s been a lot of allegations that what we’re doing is not fair, and taking that in a vacuum, I don’t understand what that means,” she said. “It’s almost like saying ‘it’s not fair my neighbor has a swimming pool and I don’t.’ If I can’t afford a swimming pool, then I can’t have it, that doesn’t make it unfair that my neighbor has one.”

Due to the length of time left until Town Meeting, it’s not possible to make any changes to the School Department’s proposed budget request for Fiscal Year 2013.

However, Harkness indicated that the School Committee will continue to try and create a contract that can be accepted not just by the WEA Negotiating Committee, but by the entire membership.

Vincent DiRico March 22, 2012 at 12:10 AM
I appreciate the job you do. The extra bodies must be a huge factor in there being no $ so I think we agree there but it is just a little late for me to buy that is a surprise to anyone in the system for so long. The goal of the FSF was to "create or save" jobs, I guess we are out of hope and change but don't fear because interest rates are still low (can you say new honking bleachers?).
Dave L March 22, 2012 at 02:00 AM
Did we understand that in a couple of years that money was going away? Yes. But does that mean we should have turned the money down? I don’t think so.” This comment alone should have people calling for the resignation of Harkness. Could this committee have been any more short sighted and fiscally irresponsible??
Martin Luther March 22, 2012 at 02:26 AM
The intent of the FSF was not to give an extra bump to teachers and municipal employees. The FSF was structured to "save and create" jobs. The problem is that nobody bothered to think further than the front of their nose. The federal government can print money (QE1, QE2), borrow money to fund FSF and control interest rates. The state of Massachusetts can use some sophisticated Ponzi schemes to hide their economic cadavers. Once you get to the town level, you have local receipts (Fees for services that were previously part of the tax base), local sales and room taxes, and real estate taxes. Oh, I forgot the game of bonding aka as credit card budgeting. Spend to the level that you can support by paying the minimum due on bonds that you issue to buy equipment. You are always in debt and pay about 150% of value/item and as long that there are no problems in the economy you can keep up with the Joneses. Once upon a time in Westford, only major capital items like schools were bonded. Then the financial geniuses came to town speaking in acronyms, ROI, EBT, etc... Being a Santa Claus is really a tough job.
Martin Luther March 22, 2012 at 02:37 AM
Harkness was not the chairwoman of the Westford School Committee when mana flowed from POTUS Obama (2009), Mr. Keele was the Chairman of the Westford School Committee. Of course do not forget that Mr. Robert Jeffries was the Chairman of the Board of Selectmen in 2009 to 2011. Mr. Olsen and Ms Ross did provide professional advice on the areas that would receive the benefits of FSF. Vote to re-elect POTUS Obama and get rid of the pesky Republicans in the House and FSF2 could be born. Of course, Massachusetts does not have any Republican representatives in Congress so I guess we have to vote for Elizabeth and POTUS Obama in November. If you are a registered voter in Westford, you could attend the ATM on 24 March 2012 and vote to zero out the funding line for the Town Manager. J. Ross would history effective 30 June 2012. Unfortunately to get to Supt. Olsen, you would have to zero out the whole school budget.
Martin Luther March 22, 2012 at 02:41 AM
The problem with municipal managers is that they try to be the good guy. Management prerogatives such as setting work schedules and expected performance should never be topics for discussion in labor negotiations.
Ernest Fellow March 22, 2012 at 03:25 AM
Okay. There seem to be a few odd tidbits distracting from the one & only real issue in the teacher contract negotiation. The teachers really aren’t concerned about the trivia – especially if any of it interferes with their educating of our children (and thus the propping up of our real estate values). The teachers voted down the recent “offer” for three reasons only: 1. They believe that the steps will be taken away again. 2. They believe that the steps will be taken away again and again. 3. They believe that the steps will be taken away again and again and again. When a striving young teacher misses a SINGLE year of step, it robs TENS of THOUSANDS from his or her family over a Westford teaching career. The town negotiators know full well that by pulling the steps out from under the teachers THIS ONE year, that each teacher will be underpaid NOT ONLY this year, but EVERY subsequent year of their career. If this one ill-mannered slap to the teachers can so easily reap such a grand harvest, the teachers can certainly expect to be slapped around again and again. Please recall last September, when teachers were left to discover in their paychecks – with no warning nor explanation nor apology – that their family budgets had just been raided of tens of thousands of dollars needed to pay college loans, child care or grandparent care, or future college for their children or ???. So, we now expect teachers to vote endorsement of such a callous shakedown??
AB March 22, 2012 at 06:06 AM
Maybe if they settled on JUST the steps without all of the other over the top perks and concessions they are asking for, it wouldn't be so bad. Or maybe if they took LESS of a step percentage, so they wouldn't lose it but would take a much lower increase, say 1-2%, and/or have the bigger hit be to their longevity pay instead. Your argument fails to hold water unless these are viable options to the WEA.
Eddie S March 22, 2012 at 08:45 AM
Amber, My understanding is "all the other perks' listed were the attempt of the WEA negotiation group to find things (w/out year 1 steps) that might help the contract get ratified. Obviously the teachers sent the message it wasnt a comperable swap. I am willing to bet, from what I have heard, the teachers would accept a contract with 2 years steps (for over 30% of teachers that means nothing as they are on 'top step'), 0 COLA, and very small language changes. The contract looks bloated in an attempt to compensate for no step, which isnt going to happen.
Eddie S March 22, 2012 at 09:01 AM
Ernest: Hear, Hear! Since we know finances in town arent going to drastically improve in Westford after this teacher contract (July 2013) and town officials have made statements in the past about taking away steps permanently, I dont think its alarmist of the teachers to expect of they endorse this 'freeze' this one time that they will, in actuality, be sending the message they will accept it being done again again and again. Healthcare and fuel costs are up everywhere, Westford spends less on SPED mandates than most of our neighbors -anyone else asking why WESTFORD seems to have been ravaged and neighboring towns have not? They think its a source of amusement and shame that we are withholding steps, maybe we ought to start asking some tougher questions of our officials instead of letting them stick to the rhetoric. The more I learn the more it seems like the teachers are being penalized for the poor decisions of management and the 1 year no steps is a small band aid anyway in the scheme of things....
Vincent DiRico March 22, 2012 at 11:22 AM
"and thus the propping up of our real estate values" -> I don't care about fantasy "taken away again and again and again" -> I don't care about union scare tactics
Molly March 22, 2012 at 01:24 PM
@Eddie S, that is such a crock. If the WEA were negotiating on BEHALF of the teachers I think they knew they were not going to agree to a contract w/out 2 yr steps. All this garbage about the "teacher's have spoken" is such bull. How come I knew if the steps were not in there they were not going to agree?? but their negotiators did not?? This was all to get it newspapers and hope their pity party would be heard again and again. Unfortunately, it did not work. Common sense prevails. It is quite obvious that the School Committee tried to give things in place of the steps... Question: if it is just about the steps, what were all those demands that teachers had that the school committee did not agree to??? Noone is buying this bull anymore.... OK, so the town has hit a financial snag, a big one I might add. The point I have tried to make from the beginning, Is the teacher's have been well treated in this town... Now the town is asking for them to take one for the team. We will get you back next year and if financially we get real sound again as a town we would not have forgotten your gesture... But no, you go around stomping your feet and demanding MORE,MORE! That is a pretty fair contract under these conditions. Teachers should all be ashamed of themselves right now!!!!!!!!!!!!
Vincent DiRico March 22, 2012 at 01:55 PM
"Obviously the teachers sent the message it wasn't a comparable swap" -> to be fair (taken from above; replaced the names): This comment alone should have people calling for the resignation of WEA leaders. Could this union have been any more short sighted and fiscally irresponsible??
MAHM3 March 22, 2012 at 02:00 PM
@ Molly- GO POUND SAND! Your rants about the teachers are ridiculous. Look who is "stomping there feet" throwing a fit. Instead of blaming the teachers for this financial mess the town is in, you should be questioning the people that run it and their financial irresponsibility!
Sam March 22, 2012 at 03:15 PM
Clearly the teachers know they are going to lose in court. If that turly is the case why the gigantic PR push? If you KNOW you will win, why all of this bluster? How could it matter. You will win, you will get all you ask for and the Town will be screwed. End of story.
Derek March 22, 2012 at 03:53 PM
.....and from a labor relations/court point of view, how would future complaints by the teachers (union) on unfair practice be adjudicated if the teachers establish a new precedent of accepting no step increases? Doesn't it just lay the groundwork for giving the town an easier way to withold things in future? Of course, I'm no labor law specialist and could be entirely wrong. Just something that came to mind.
Molly March 22, 2012 at 04:44 PM
@MAHM3 I will go pound sand when the teacher's start acting like professionals and stop their whinig. I never said the teachers were to blame for this mess, there are a million things that need changing so messes do not happen. Unfortunately MAHM3 can't look back now! All the other unions took the contract and the teacher's have not. No foot stomping here. Just disgraced to why they have not taken it. I personally do not think it is JUST about the steps. At this point, let them go to court, let the teachers win there steps and LET THE LAYOFFS begin!! I am actually ok with it. I will not be collecting UNEMPLOYMENT and I guess start thinking like a teacher and I will just worry about myself!!!
Mike March 22, 2012 at 05:11 PM
Molly, had you experienced a Westford education delivered by Westford teachers, you might actually be aware of the subtle differences between a garden-variety plural (teachers), a singular possessive (teacher's), and plural possessive (teachers'). With luck, your children won't be making those same sad mistakes because you and your oft-mentioned and hard-working husband will eventually realize that education is one of the draws of this lovely town, and like with most things in life, you get what you pay for.
Julie C. March 22, 2012 at 05:41 PM
@ Mike, Unfortunately, a Westford education delivered by Westford teachers doesn't necessarily mean students can write well, despite how much we might pay. Check out Westford Academy's Ghostwriter website for a sampling of WA students' writing skills if you enjoy pointing out sad mistakes.
Benny Blanco March 22, 2012 at 09:11 PM
My neighbor (WPS teacher) said today that the town's teachers have filed a 2nd lawsuit against the town in Boston Labor Court for violations of the law regarding how our School Committee has negotiated in the past year. Wow, what a snafu. Anyone know more? Andrew?
Martin Luther March 22, 2012 at 09:20 PM
I was told by a reliable source that the Shadow knows. Attend the Westford ATM starting at 10 am on the 24th of March 2012 to meet the Shadow. BTW Are you aware that the municipal water in Westford is of such poor quality that many departments are buying bottled water from their departmental expense accounts.
Benny Blanco March 22, 2012 at 09:25 PM
Jesse, I was not aware of the water quality in town being subpar though I am not surprised as I have noticed a sulfuric smell in our water from time to time and I have started buying bottled water also at home. Do you know more about the quality issues of the water in regard to testing? (not exactly on topic for the teacher situation or town meeting but wow, quality of life in Westford has been in rapid decline over the past several years, and I dont think things will be better when the Cornerstone plaza comes on line)
Dan D. March 22, 2012 at 09:46 PM
There are sure a lot of emotional "arguments" being tossed about. Regardless of what people think they deserve or are entitled to, and regardless of the outcome of whatever legal action goes on, the problem remains: No money to continue to pay public employees what they have been used to and no money to continue the perks they are used to. Instead of emotional rants and legal posturing, I'd like to see some proposals from any of the unions, including the teachers union, on how to proceed with the financial situation the way it is (regardless of how it got there). The only ones I've seen here have been from whoever posted the: "Huge Tax increases or Massive Layoffs" note. So, union members, what do your want to see: -Layoffs in your union to get what you want -Layoffs in other unions to get what you want -Run up the town debt to get what you want -Try a massive tax increase -Change from demanding what you want, to accepting what you'll get How 'bout it?
Andrew Sylvia (Editor) March 22, 2012 at 10:25 PM
Just deleted a comment talking about a "cocaine rapture party". And Julie C., you are treading on thin ice when you're talking the way you just did about the Ghostwriter. Those kids work hard. Any more issues, I'm closing this article to comments.
Kendra Kilsdonk March 22, 2012 at 10:42 PM
I think that Jesse James was being facetious about the water quality ;). Bottled water is a very profitable scam, why are Town department's spending money on it when we have a perfectly good municipal water supply?
Douglass March 22, 2012 at 11:08 PM
Dan D- What does this resident propose? First let STOP the spendfest by placing hiring freeze on public employees very much including the 14+ new school positions. Next I think those responsible for this mess need to be held fully accountable so that the trend isnt repeated. Moving out and bringing in some fresh bodies might be in order. Positions which 'put is over the top' which were created over the past 4 years with this federal unsustainable money should be eliminated bringing us back to earth where we can afford to pay those working for us properly. I would also like to see the administration cut back across town (do we NEED an Assistant Superintendent?)
Dan D. March 22, 2012 at 11:18 PM
Great, Douglass. There are a lot of suggestions on this thread from citizens, I'm looking for some from the unions or union members! So far,just "I want mine" is all I've heard with no proposed solutions put forth other than "find the money somewhere".
Salvatore J March 22, 2012 at 11:50 PM
Dan D: Its not the unions job to solve the town's finance problems or manage finances (we have a Town Manager for that although one may not know it from this mess) so I doubt you will hear an answer from them. If I were representing one of these unions I wouldnt 'go there either' Guess we arent the well off comunity many thought we were when they moved here in the last 2 decades! Guess we are more like Ayer, Chelmsford, and Dracut than I had thougt
Martin Luther March 23, 2012 at 01:12 AM
Kendra the bottled water is an entitlement issue with municipal workers. Also check the TM's budget and look for dues, conferences and other benefits paid by the town. In addition to the 20+ coaches that are given to special town employees, An estimated $5,000 per/year tax free no less. The $90,000 Westford Academy Athletic Director plus ancillary office staff. People should wonder about the high athletic fees to emulate the college football factories.
Martin Luther March 23, 2012 at 01:20 AM
Pretty soon steps will be a thing of the past. Welcome to the brutish world of capitalistic enterprise.
Andrew Sylvia (Editor) March 23, 2012 at 01:55 AM
Okay, just deleted an ethnic slur. There's probably about half a dozen other comments I should delete here as well, but I'm just going to close this article to comments.


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