Rough Waters: Teacher-Board Contract Negotiator Runs Up Bills

Before the next round of teacher contract negotiations for the Windsor Central Supervisory Union gets underway, we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge several dismayed reports that came to Woodstock Early Bird following a recent WCSU Board meeting held just before the school year ended.

We have been trying to re-construct the scene, the story and the impact and implications for the future.

The reports to Woodstock Early Bird concerned a presentation made by Attorney Steven Stitzel in which he was described as characterizing teachers in the worst light, in a way that left several attending the meeting both angry and demoralized. There was, in fact, a reported public display of that demoralization from Teacher Nancy Pejouhy who stood to counter his comments.

Since we were not at the meeting we asked several people who were to let us know what was going on, if anything?

We also sought to find out, as part of the process of understanding both past and upcoming teacher contract negotiations, just how much the WCSU School Board is spending of our taxpayer dollars to employ someone who seems — from reports — to have the worst opinion of our educators and is, perhaps, not highly interested in seeking resolution, but to bringing teachers and taxpayers to their knees with picket lines and pricey billing. (As was the case in Bennington).

We have for you now, some responses, and some facts to share with you.

First, from Superintendent Alice Worth this succinct description of the meeting, which was followed just today by a detailed letter we will post below:

At an open meeting, Attorney Steven Stitzel discussed the negotiations process.

Next, we have what Woodstock Early Bird would characterize as a “diplomatic description” of the meeting and the teacher contract process from Woodstock Teachers’ union faculty representative Keri Bristow:

 

1. Steven Stitzel, lawyer, was invited to present to the WCSU Board regarding his view of negotiations.

From a first hand report (or 3, who all agreed), he discussed his own perspective of the worst case of teachers taking advantage of contract benefits, such as using up all their sick days so they can take time off, using bereavement time to also bilk the system, that there are too many breaks given to teachers during the school day, that they only work a short day as it is and don’t need to have personal days, things along those lines. He did not personalize it to our district, but his characterization was that this is what teachers do and contracts should never have been negotiated to include these benefits.

2. He is the lawyer that the board hired to negotiate for/with them in the last round of negotiations. Ultimately, after fact finding and mediation, a settlement was reached that covered the year we worked without a contract, the current year, and this upcoming year 13-14. Thus, indeed, we must start up this fall for 14-15 year.
(Woodstock Early Bird comments here from a tipster: “Everything could have been settled for the price of a beer…” )
3. The last I knew, when we had a Business Manager, he had been paid in excess of $40,000 to do this work, but I am sure the cost is higher as all bills weren’t in at that point. (Note: See Alice Worth letter below)
4. I publicly stated at the last school board meeting in June (it is on channel 8 for public record) that as the faculty representative to the school board, I was very glad to be done with the school year, that I recognized we were going to continue to face challenges in our schools, and that we are all on the same team. Team Student. I further said that we would need to work together in a spirit of collaboration, compromise, consideration and kindness and that I hoped we could move forward together.
5. Finally, the teacher’s associations across this district would like to return to local level bargaining, without outside folks coming in to speak for us. Of course both groups get advice from counsel, but it would certainly be preferable if we could sit down together, recognize the challenges in funding for schools and diminishing student numbers, and be reasonable. 6 schools will have to sit down with the board members and try to work out a cooperative agreement that meets the needs of all 6 schools, taxpayers, etc. It will be a challenge.
6. I do not see the current counsel, Mr. Stitzel, as a positive, collaborative member of this team, based upon his recent presentation, the past round of bargaining, and his history in other school districts in our state.
We also asked WUHS School Board Chair Dwight Doton his view of the meeting and of Mr. Stitzel’s role as counsel for teacher contract negotiations. This was his response:
Steve Stitzel presented to the WCSU board his
opinion of the effects of union teacher contract negotiations state
wide and nation wide over the past 40 plus years.
His opinions included possible worst case scenarios, but at no time were his
comments directed at our district’s negotiation or our staff.
There were those at the meeting who took offense to many of Mr. Stitzel’s
opinions and stated that.
Mr. Stitzel represented the unified board counsel in the last
negotiation (the first in which we attempted to combine contracts among
districts) and represented the boards cordially and well.We will negotiate again this fall and as laypeople, will retain
representation to guide our negotiators. As you know, the NEA willprovide representation for the teachers and support staff.
And now, finally, from Superintendent Alice Worth, a letter today outlining the exact costs for having Attorney Steve Stitzel as counsel:
July 2, 2013

Dear Julia:

I am happy to respond to your recent inquiry concerning legal services attorney Steven Stitzel has provided the Windsor Central Supervisory Union and its member districts dating back to 2011. Steve is one of several owners of the law firm, Stitzel, Page and Fletcher, P.C. Steve’s law firm has provided various legal services to WCSU and its member districts since the 1990’s and continues to do so.

In February of 2011, in connection with the first negotiation of a single collective bargaining agreement for teachers employed by the WCSU, Reading, Woodstock Elementary and Woodstock Union Middle/High School, the four involved boards retained Steve to provide assistance during the negotiation process. The approximate annual cost of salary and benefits under negotiation for these teachers was $23,516,348. Steve, with some additional assistance from other attorneys in the firm submitted bills for the following legal services:

February 2011 to September 2011 (during face-to-face negotiations by the parties): $5,025.

September 2011 thru January 2012 (preparation for and mediation with an impartial mediator): $7,450

February 2012 to July 2012 (preparation for and presentation of information to an impartial fact-finder):$16,594

July 2012 to January 2013 (receipt of fact-finding report, negotiation of contract settlement and assist with execution of final contract): $8,741

Total Cost: $37,810

The final, executed contract covers the three (3) year period, July 1, 2011 – June 30, 2014.

In May of 2011, in connection with the first negotiation of a collective bargaining agreement for educational support personnel employed by the Woodstock Elementary School and the Woodstock Union Middle/High School, the two involved boards also retained Steve. The approximate annual cost of salary and benefits under negotiation for these employees was $2,507,796. Steve submitted bills for the following legal services:

May 2011 to August 2011 (during face-to-face negotiations by the parties): $610

August 2011 thru January 2012 (preparation for and mediation with an impartial mediator): $1,848

February 2012 to August 2012 (preparation for and presentation of information to an impartial fact-finder):$8,574

August 2012 to January 2013 (receipt of fact-finding report, negotiation of contract settlement and assist with execution of final contract): $4,978

Total Cost: $16,010

The final, executed contract covers the three (3) year period, July 1, 2011 – June 30, 2014.

That is all we have for you now, Woodstock Early Birds. We would like to say a couple of things. First, we are still so impressed with the students who came forward to support their teachers, especially those who have been let go. Kids know who is on “Team Student” and who is not. Let’s not forget their opinions and needs going forward.
Second, belatedly, we know that a certain woman, a concerned parent, an educator’s educator Diane Weiner, would have taken a keen interest in this latest meeting and its fallout. Weiner passed away suddenly last month and so we can only say that it was an honor for Woodstock Early Bird to have have met her, if only briefly, in discussions about Woodstock school politics and issues. She was an enormous help in providing background on teacher contracts, expenditures and advocating for both kids and teachers. Her passion and energy on the subject were unsurpassed. We thank her for her contributions and write this post in her honor.

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Tom Weschler on July 2, 2013 at 17:32

    Thanks for bringing this topic to everyone’s attention. It is certainly an important issue.

    However, I do hope the Early Bird doesn’t become the forum for too many conversations on this topic. This forum, while furthering conversation, might not provide the topic the proper justice/respect required.

    As a former WUMS/HS school board member I know this is a complicated issue. Both sides in the process need to do their homework and spend the time required to get proper resolution. Salary negotiations are emotional and personal in addition to impacting people’s lives and town money.

    Our community members should use the ‘proper’ channels we have at our disposal. Talk to your school board members, attend school board meetings, and put time into researching this critical topic. With that done, our community should come to an informed and proper outcome.

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    • Heaven forbid matters of import are discussed in a public forum by concerned readers!

      Perhaps “proper channels” haven’t worked for those members of the public seeking an ear from administrators or school board members.

      We find it interesting, if not appalling, that you would seek to suppress honest discussion and exchange of views on any topic of local interest.

      WEB

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  2. Posted by Russell Pejouhy on July 3, 2013 at 14:49

    This public forum is an important avenue to express the concerns of our public education system. The public doesn’t know what happens behind closed doors at executive sessions, and when a school board member moves to adjourn a public meeting before public debate or pertinent questions are asked, the public can be denied its right to know. Elected school board members are accountable to the voters, school staff, and most importantly, the students for how they direct the school administrators. We need more transparency, not the personal agendas of a few board members who dictate policy contrary to the public good.

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  3. Posted by Nancy Pejouhy on July 3, 2013 at 17:09

    Thank you, Early Bird, for tackling this issue. For the record though, I don’t believe anger was expressed by me at the Board meeting. I was astonished by Mr. Stitzel’s presentation to the board and refuted his characterization of teachers. Since the meeting had been referred to as a “Board Retreat”, I suspect that Mr. Stitzel was unaware of the presence of teachers. I believe he was paid $175 per hour to explain the negotiation process to the combined Boards but at least 30 minutes was spent bashing teachers and unions. As someone who has dedicated 28 years to the students of this community, I did feel demoralized by his attacks on the profession I love and respect.

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    • Nancy, apologies for characterizing your comments in an inappropriate light! However, much appreciate your first- hand report on what DID happen at this obviously upsetting meeting!

      WEB

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  4. Posted by Steven Thomas on July 4, 2013 at 08:09

    Sadly, this is a nation wide trend: bashing unions and beating down teachers and other union members.

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