More than 100 Westbrook teachers staged a demonstration at a school committee meeting in May to call for a new contract.

Westbrook teachers have lost a critical fight in their prolonged contract negotiations.

The Westbrook Education Association has been working with an expired contract since last summer. Routine negotiations and mediation have failed. The two parties have turned to a state panel to resolve their dispute, a step taken by only a small number of districts each year. The battle became public this spring when teachers protested at a Westbrook School Committee meeting and outside their schools.

The conflict has centered on language the association wanted to add to the contract about teacher workload and scheduling. In May, the Westbrook School Department filed a prohibitive practice complaint with the Maine Labor Relations Board, arguing those issues are not subject to bargaining. The state board Wednesday issued a decision that sided almost entirely with the district.

That decision does not end the dispute, but it does hurt the association’s efforts to add new protections for teachers into the contract.

Jared Ruthman, a history teacher at Westbrook High School and president of the Westbrook Education Association, said he was disappointed but has not yet decided how to respond to the decision. He said Westbrook teachers have latched onto national protests in recent weeks because they are feeling the same pressures to do more with less.

“This isn’t just about Westbrook teachers being angry,” Ruthman said. “I think this is hitting the point of some national trends that have been brewing for years.”

Jim Violette, school committee chairman, said he hopes the labor board’s decision helps the parties reach an agreement soon.

“Hopefully we can get together with the education association and see if there is any way we can somehow come to a conclusion with the contract impasse,” he said.

Nearly 500 employees work in Westbrook schools. The teachers’ contract covers 259 people, and the association’s membership is 197. Negotiations on a new contract began in spring 2017, and the most recent agreement expired at the end of August. The association filed for mediation in the fall, and then for fact-finding in early winter.

The fact-finding panel hears arguments on both sides and then issues recommendations on each issue. If the association and the district still cannot come to a resolution, the next step is arbitration. The contract expired more than 270 days ago, and that timeline could push the delay over a year. Violette said the school department wanted to speed up that process when it filed its complaint on May 10.

Both parties have said the financial components of the contract – salary increases and benefits – have already been decided. Negotiations are confidential, and representatives on both sides could not explain their differences in detail. But the decision from the Maine Labor Relations Board reveals much of the language the association wanted to add to the contract.

For example, two new sections would have spelled out the amount of preparation time afforded to teachers. One would have compensated teachers at a reduced rate for extra hours if their work days were extended. Another would have slightly increased pay for teachers with classes over a certain size – 15 students for kindergarten teachers and 18 students for teachers in other grades.

However, district leadership argued those ideas fell under the umbrella of education policy, which cannot be bargained and must be set by the school committee. On seven of nine proposals, the state labor board agreed. There are still unresolved issues, however, so the fact-finding panel is scheduled to meet again next week.

Violette said he did not disagree with the association’s ideas, but he did not believe they belong in a binding contract. For example, he said the budget for next year would include additional STEAM teachers at the elementary schools, which would give all teachers there an extra preparation period. But if the association could set class sizes in the contract, he said the district could be required to hire more teachers in its budget.

“We try to do as much as we can to provide all of the necessary tools that the teachers need, but there is a price that comes, too,” Violette said. “As elected officials, we have to look at the budgetary constraints and how much cost are taxpayers willing to accept.”

But Ruthman said morale is low in the district because teachers do not feel their needs are being addressed.

“This kind of action has created psychic trauma to the teachers in this district in the sense that they are going to question how much the board respects them and sees what their value is,” Ruthman said. “It’s going to take some time to recover from that.”

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: megan_e_doyle

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