Teachers’ Union Makes Stand At School Board Meeting
By: Michael J. Rausch
The library at Sandwich High School was filled with people for Wednesday’s school committee meeting, but you could hear the proverbial pin drop. More than 50 members of the Sandwich teachers’ union showed up for the meeting to demand that the teachers’ contract stalemate with the district be settled.
At first, they let their signs speak for them. “We Want a Fair Contract Now” and “Teachers & Respect…Fair Contract Now” were just two of the handwritten messages greeting school committee members when they filed in for the meeting shortly after 7 PM.
Soon after the meeting convened, the teachers let their voices be heard during public forum.
“Teachers need a contract, the school committee needs a contract, the town needs closure,” said Horace Schermerhorn III, Sandwich High School English teacher and chairman of the Sandwich Educators Association crisis committee. “Let us work together so that together we can finally reach a fair and well-thought out contract demonstrating respect for all parties.”
Karen L. Stapleton, chairman of the Sandwich Educators Association negotiating team, told committee members that settling the contract dispute would be in the best interest of Sandwich because “it is a distraction, and I’m sure the town has other things that they need to focus on.”
The presence of the teachers Wednesday night is the latest step taken by the Sandwich Educators Association to force the hand of the Sandwich School Committee into finalizing a new contract.
Recently, the union started taking out newspaper ads counting the days teachers have been working without a contract. As of today, that number stands at 431.
In addition to the ads, the union has advised teachers at all grade levels to cut back on their involvement in extracurricular school activities.
As the Enterprise reported last week, all union members were asked to stop volunteering in activities for which they had not signed a contract. The list of activities teachers were told to avoid included science fairs, book fairs, fundraisers, field trips, mentor groups, chaperoning and school council. According to the letter, the action taken by the union was meant to support its negotiation team and activate the school committee into taking care of business and being respectful of the union.
According to Sandwich School Superintendent C. Richard Canfield, teachers are still abiding by the terms of a contract that ran out in June 2010. That contract was settled in 2007, after nearly two years of negotiations, but not until eight months after the previous contract had expired. During that eight-month period without a new contract, teachers continued working under the terms of the old contract.
According to Dr. Canfield, the expired 2007 contract that teachers are still working under does require teachers to provide extra help, and teachers are sticking by their obligations.
Sandwich Educators Association President Laura R. Carlyle said part of the frustration being felt by the teachers stems from a lack of communication between the school committee and the union. Ms. Carlyle said the school committee has not made it clear to the union what the problems are or what is holding up the negotiations.
“I think,” she said, “it needs to be an excellent dialogue at a time when the town needs the cooperation of everyone. It needs to be an excellent dialogue, and I don’t think we have that.”
According to Ms. Carlyle, the presence of the teachers at the meeting Wednesday night was prompted by the two-year anniversary of the most recent union contract running out. Ms. Carlyle said reaching an equitable contract will allow attention to be directed back to the students. “We need this distraction to be fairly resolved.”
That distraction is keenly felt by Mr. Schermerhorn, who said the protracted negotiations are taking away from his work as a teacher. “I could be home correcting papers,” he said at the end of the meeting. “I have better things to do with my time than organize a very respectful rally of support for the negotiating team. I should be doing other business.” Mr. Schermerhorn also said the school committee has given him and the union a lot of time to think about the contract and their demands, but “the time is to do rather than think about it.”
Dr. Canfield is quick to point out that the people serving on the school committee are themselves volunteers, who put in a lot of nights, on their own time, because they care about the community. As for the issue of the school committee not showing respect to the teachers’ union, Dr. Canfield said he has not heard any disrespectful comments from any member of the school committee toward the union.
“I do understand,” he said, “that, for some people, the lack of a contract is obviously very wearing, and people would like to get it resolved and not have it sitting there as a distraction, so we can truly focus on what we’re most passionate about, teaching and learning.”
School committee Chairman Shaun P. Cahill, as well as other members of the committee, refused to comment on the negotiations. Mr. Cahill did, however, take a moment at the end of the school committee meeting to criticize the teachers for “negotiating in the press.”
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