Sullivan schools, SCEA set ground rules for negotiations

Rick Wagner • Mar 4, 2009 at 12:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County’s teachers union and school system representatives will kick off negotiations next month by focusing on what happens to teachers affected when a school closes, consolidates or has students rezoned to another school.

Negotiating teams from the Sullivan County Education Association and the school system sat down at the negotiating table Wednesday afternoon to set some ground rules, announce what would be negotiated for the 2009-10 school year, and set up future negotiation meeting times.

The groups also agreed that the first topic to be discussed at the next session would be the “abolition and recall” provisions of the contract.

SCEA chief negotiator Terri Adler, a special education and outreach teacher at Rock Springs and Indian Springs elementary schools, said the issue rose to the top of concerns among SCEA members this winter amid public discussions about proposals to close three elementary schools and do rezonings between two other schools.

The Sullivan County Board of Education ended up Monday delaying any decision until March 2010, instead instructing the Central Office staff to come up with concrete plans for a countywide school building and renovation plan and seek funding for it from the County Commission. But Adler said the issue needs to be addressed in the contract now.

She said it came under the larger heading of “respect” for teachers, an issue that also includes the SCEA wanting teachers to have more input into decisions made by principals and the Central Office, an issue to be addressed at a later session.

Also to be considered at the next session will be an issue the school system raised. Chief school system negotiator Evelyn Rafalowski, director of transportation, athletics and technology, said contract changes are needed to reflect a federal law change on handling of employee-funded retirement funds separate from the regular state retirement.

The groups set four dates for future negotiations: either 5:30 p.m. April 6 or April 13, depending on which date is the next regular BOE meeting; 5 p.m. April 16; 4 p.m. April 28; and 4 p.m. May 5. All sessions will go until 8 p.m. unless the teams agree to modify the ending time.

Of the other issues to be addressed this year, both sides raised salary and benefits, while the SCEA wants to revisit student discipline in general and the opening of an alterative school in particular. The system raised in-service hours.

The sides agreed that salary and benefits would be addressed last, since budgeting hasn’t started yet, and the other issues would be taken up at later meetings.

“Salary must be competitive to recruit and retain the best teachers available,” Adler said.

She said the county is in a position of hiring “leftovers” from other systems.

Adler said when she graduated from college in 1979, Sullivan ranked 13th statewide in teacher pay but has fallen to 53rd in 2009 among a smaller number of school systems statewide.

As for the lack of an alterative school where children with discipline problems can be educated without disrupting general classrooms, she called that a “keg of dynamite that is going to blow at any moment.”

Rafalowski, former personnel director of the school system, said the system wants to have the best possible learning environment for students and working environment for teachers, and she was confident both sides would come to amicable agreements on the issues negotiated.

Rafalowski also said it was ironic she was a fellow student with Adler at the old Sullivan High School from 1970 to 1973, a year ahead of Adler, and the two then-neighbors never dreamed they’d be negotiating contract issues for teachers in the system more than three decades later.

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