FARMINGTON — With school districts statewide facing tight budgets in recent years, the union groups representing school bus drivers, custodians and other support staff have been under increasing pressure to make concessions to survive.

School boards and administrators say they struggle with tough and unavoidable decisions to trim budgets, forcing them to pursue everything from wage freezes to layoffs when negotiating with unions.

Union representatives and members counter that they are open to compromise but say that during recent contract talks they worried more about losing their jobs to less expensive subcontractors.

The struggle to find a middle ground has divided communities and highlighted national debates about labor rights and educational funding, according to officials on both sides of the negotiating table.

In some cases, such as in Madison-based School Administrative District 59, both sides reach a contract agreement that they say helps preserve the union, while also securing future savings for the district by cutting back on benefits and wages for new hires.

SAD 59 school board members and the support staff union signed a three-year contract in March, following several months of debate about subcontracting to replace bus drivers and custodians.

In other cases, such as a developing situation in Farmington-based Mt. Blue Regional School District 9, deadlocked contract negotiations lead to tense showdowns between district officials and union representatives.

Mt. Blue school board members recently voted to allow the superintendent to subcontract custodial services unless the union agrees in upcoming contract mediation to accept concessions that save the district at least $200,000 annually. The vote came after 14 months of contract negotiations.

Peter Bennett, an attorney specializing in collective bargaining, said that in general the challenges faced by school districts reflect national trends among labor negotiations in the private and public sector alike. He is president of the Bennett Law Firm, which has offices in Portland and Boston and solely represents management in labor negotiations.

Benefits predominant issue

Battles between employers and unions over cuts in health insurance and retirement benefits have become the predominant issue, driving them to consider making drastic changes or face breakdowns that harm both sides, Bennett said.

“I think that frankly this is one of the more cooperative times in labor-management relations,” he said.

But Bennett added he believes neither side has gained a significant negotiating advantage that prompted the recent shift toward compromise.

“It’s not that the deals being struck are especially lucrative for either side but, rather, that everybody knows how difficult the economy is,” he said.

He primarily represents private businesses and has also worked with school districts and other government organizations to settle labor negotiations across New England and New York for 20 years.

Chris Galgay, president of the statewide educational workers union group Maine Education Association, said that he opposes replacing school district employees with subcontractors, regardless of the job title.

“We feel that every employee working in a district has a loyalty (to) and pride in the school,” he said.

Galgay described subcontracting as a quick fix that has a negative effect on a school district, saying it replaces employees who have a connection to the unique educational community with people who may not share that approach to the job.

Because local union units handle their own contract negotiations, Galgay said he wouldn’t comment on specific school districts. He said that some districts have gone to subcontracting bus drivers and custodians for a number of reasons, which makes it difficult to assess the issue.

Teachers’ unions have frequently been affected by similar budget cuts, but a majority of school districts first look for savings by outsourcing support staff before making cuts in the classroom, he said.

Galgay said that statewide, however, a lack of sufficient funding for the educational system as a whole has been the root of the problems tied to retaining skilled employees who have a commitment to education.

In general, teachers and support staff alike have seen minimal raises in pay for the last two years, Galgay said.

“Maine taxpayers have to really make a decision on whether they want to invest in something that is as important to our future and economy as education,” he said.

The Maine Education Association has 20,000 active members and 5,000 retirees, representing school employees in grades kindergarten through twelve and the university system, he said.

Doug Hodum, a Mt. Blue High School science teacher and lead negotiator for the Farmington-based school district’s support staff union unit, has said the school board’s vote on subcontracting leaves few options to preserve dozens of jobs that pay a livable wage and provide benefits.

He said the school board’s 9-3 vote to seek $200,000 in savings placed added pressure on the union by authorizing the subcontracting alternative just weeks shy of long-awaited contract mediation on May 15.

There is also a fast-approaching deadline because the additional $200,000 in savings is included in the proposed 2012-13 budget that will be sent to residents for a validation vote Thursday, May 24.

To realize those savings, 18 custodians represented by the school district’s union would have to be laid off. Additionally, the hours of about 20 bus drivers who also work part time as custodians would be reduced, which would eliminate their benefit packages.

Superintendent Michael Cormier said this week that the subcontracting plan has been discussed for more than a year by school district officials and board members, who rejected a similar plan last year to give more time for contract negotiations with the union.

He said that if the subcontracting moves forward, the school board has included a clause that requires the company to place a priority on hiring the school district workers who get laid off.

‘Struggling to make ends meet’

Among those employees who would be affected by subcontracting is Bruce Rollins, who has worked for Mt. Blue for 15 years as a bus driver and custodian. He would have his hours reduced and lose his health insurance benefits, which cover him and his wife, Brinda.

Rollins, 59, said he also works on the weekends as a minister at the Church of Christ in Farmington, which provides him with a small stipend. His wife runs a children’s day care business out of their home in Wilton.

Without the benefits from his job at the school district, Rollins said he couldn’t afford the health insurance coverage that he relies on to help pay for diabetes medication for his wife.

Rollins said, depending on changes to the health insurance plan, he is also doubtful that he will be able to afford coverage even if a deal is reached between the union and school district to save the district $200,000.

“We’re already struggling to make ends meet,” he said of his tight household budget.

The custodians who face layoffs or reduced hours receive 100 percent reimbursement for a single person’s health insurance plan, with the district covering 65 percent for each dependent’s coverage beyond that, union officials said.

District administrators receive 80 percent in health benefit reimbursement for themselves and dependents. Teachers receive 83 percent based on the same plan.

Rollins said that the reason he has worked for the school district for 15 years, however, goes far beyond any financial incentives. His son and daughter, who are both adults now, graduated from the school district, and he has three grandchildren attending classes there.

“It’s important to me to have stability in the community and that includes the schools,” he said.

Rollins described the workers hired through subcontracting as a revolving-door approach to employment. He said they would be constantly bringing in new workers after others left because of the low wages and benefits.

School district officials and board members have said the estimated subcontracting savings are necessary to close a budget shortfall caused by rising fuels prices, increases in other fixed operational costs and the loss of federal stimulus money.

A majority of the estimated subcontracting savings have been re-allocated in the proposed $28.9 million budget to reinstate two teaching positions — math and reading intervention specialist — and fund educational services tied to technology and special education programs. Some of the savings will also be allocated to reduce the overall amount towns pay in school taxes.

Among the three school board members voting against subcontracting, Robert Flick said the ongoing contract negotiations prevent school district officials and board members from talking about details.

“I feel strongly that these are people of our community and we should treat them well,” Flick said in a phone interview this week. He is one of the five board members representing Farmington.

In Madison-based SAD 59, Superintendent Todd LeRoy said the decision against pursuing subcontracting there was made based on the concessions in the three-year contract. The savings from the contract were slightly less than what the district would have saved by subcontracting, but it made the most sense to keep the existing workers, he said. Subcontracting would have affected 25 district employees.

LeRoy called subcontracting issue just one of many options that school administrators and board members must look at to find savings during difficult budget years.

“If there is a substantial amount of savings that is available, don’t you then owe it to the community to look into that?” he said.

David F. Robinson – 861-9286

drobinson@centralmaine.com