Vote on School Hiring in Middletown Draws Mixed Response

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MIDDLETOWN — On November 2, voters will be asked to approve a change to the town charter that would shift the hiring and supervision of school district employees without teaching credentials from the purview of the Mayor to the Board of Education and superintendent of schools.

Support for the change has been mixed, with the Mayor’s Office and Majority Leader of the Common Council touting the new arrangement as more efficient and less convoluted, while representatives for the local union say that the change could weaken their negotiating power.

Under the current charter, employees who are certified by the state Department of Education, including teachers and paraeducators, are hired and supervised by the Board of Education and the district administration. All other workers without certification — custodians, secretarial staff, cafeteria workers and workers in the central office — are hired and supervised by the City of Middletown. 

According to Mayor Ben Florsheim that arrangement was the primary reason the city undertook the charter revision. He said that his office and city’s human resources department spend more time dealing with board of education issues than they do on anything else. 

“The chain of command for employees doesn’t make any sense. So you’ve got employees, custodians, and cafeteria  workers, for instance, who are city employees, but they’re managed on a day-to-day basis by people who are school employees. And the people making final decisions on any issues that come forward aren’t the people who are actually managing them on a day-to-day basis,” said Florsheim. “And so it grinds everything to a halt on a regular basis, and it makes it very difficult for us to run the city and run the schools as effectively as we should be doing.” 

Common Council Majority Leader Eugene Nocera said that the system of putting the city in charge of school district hiring sometimes stokes tensions between the city and the school district.

“Oftentimes, the city and the board may be at odds over who the most qualified candidates are,” he said. 

Nocera said he believed that the school district was better equipped to make the decisions about what they were looking for in their employees. 

“They know their needs and know their buildings,” said Nocera. “They have a laser-sharp perspective on what they need versus the city may just have a general idea of what the job description says.”  

Nocera also said that when the district needs to fill a position quickly, instead, the city waits months, requiring the district to hire temporary workers.

Florsheim said he expected the cost to be budget neutral for the taxpayers, given that the same number of personnel would be needed to deal with hiring regardless of whether the hiring and supervision was done by the city or at the Board of Education. The real savings, he said, would be in staff time — his office would be able to focus on things like economic development and curriculum development 

If the change is approved, non-certified school district employees would split from the 4C union local unit for city employees and form another 4C unit under the Board of Education. 

Nocera and Florsheim both said they did not believe the split would negatively affect the union’s ability to negotiate. Florsheim said that employees would retain the rights that they currently had in their contract, and that the processes for collective bargaining would remain the same, just with a different entity. 

“Their collective bargaining rights are protected. Their status is protected. Their seniority is protected,” said Nocera. 

According to a document explaining the change, the employees would keep the same job duties, status and benefits. Any changes that the Superintendent wishes to make to wages or job expectations will have to be approved by the Board of Education. 

Unions respond

Common Council Minority Leader Philip Pessina said he was not sure where he stood on the question. He said he could see the benefits of the change, such as the streamlining of hiring and reporting. However, he said that he also understood the union’s concerns. He said that he was “patiently waiting” to see the results of any investigation that the Board of Education might undertake into the recent complaints of harassment against central office staff. 

Pessina said he felt that the opinions of the teachers and paraeducators who work in the schools should be paramount. 

“It’s the teachers, the paras that are on the front lines every day teaching our children and youth, and they see it from a different optic than the administrative staff,” he said. 

Representatives for Council 4/AFSCME local 466, which represents 380 members in Middletown, said they felt that splitting the union would have negative effects on taxpayers, students and union workers. Jennifer Hobart, the president of the union’s local branch, said she believed splitting the union would result in more money being spent on litigation costs. 

Brooke Carta, vice president of the local, said she was concerned that this could give the Board of Education an opportunity to ignore labor agreements that are already in place, and that the split could result in district administration and the board deciding to privatizate services.

“A lot of our members, especially in our cafeteria and custodial services, that’s a major concern of theirs. And they just feel that splitting our bargaining unit weakens our unit,” said Carta. 

“We feel that privatization inevitably leads to a tremendous squandering of taxpayers dollars, and it results in diminished services to the students as well,” added Larry Dorman, public affairs coordinator for the Council 4/AFSCME. 

Both Carta and Hobart said that they believed a charter revision question wasn’t the appropriate way to resolve the issue. 

“We believe that anything like this should be done between management at the bargaining table and that management can come to some type of an agreement,” said Hobart. “This doesn’t have to be put forth as a referendum.” 

“Brewing for a long time” 

Nocera said he could understand why, after the recent allegations made against the administration by former and current district employees, voters might be hesitant to place staff supervision and hiring under the jurisdiction of the Board of Education. 

He said, however, that he hoped citizens would take a longer view of this. 

“It’s an issue that is so long overdue to be solved. It’s been talked about for decades,” he said. 

Florsheim said that the current management structure actually contributed to the fact that the complaints in the district were allowed to languish as long as they did. Rather than going to the Board of Education, employees of the city would have to go to the city to make complaints. At that point, he said, it became a back-and-forth between the city and the school district over the validity and content of the complaint. 

“The current structure has kind of allowed some of these concerns to continue and to fester and to reach this point where people felt like they had no choice but to go forward before the Common Council,” said Florsheim. 

Carta and Hobart declined to comment on whether the recent allegations against the district administration was a factor in their opposition to the referendum question. Dorman, however, said that this question has a history that dates back long before the recent complaints were made. 

“The charter revision question — this has been brewing for a long time,” said Dorman. “This is something that we feel as a public policy, as an education policy and as a good governance policy is something that should be rejected, voted down.” 

If approved, the changes would go into effect in June, 2022.

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.