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.