In their first meeting of the new year, members of the Stamford Board of Representatives picked their poison.
They chose between approving an expensive union contract – nearly $1.5 million in raises for 78 highly paid school administrators – or sending it to state arbitration, a move that could cost $100,000 in fees and result in the same raises.
Against the advice of the school board’s attorney, representatives this week voted for arbitration, 23-7, with six abstaining.
Among the representatives who prevailed, the general thinking was that the risk of an unfavorable arbitration outcome is worth the message a contract rejection sends to other unions and to the Board of Education.
The message: don’t burden taxpayers in a time of fiscal uncertainty.
It came from all factions of the Board of Representatives – traditional Democrats, reform Democrats, Republicans, and independent thinkers in between.
And it came despite a warning from Board of Education attorney Thomas Mooney of Shipman & Goodwin, who negotiated the agreement with the Stamford Administrative Unit, which represents principals, assistant principals, and Central Office administrators, except for the superintendent and three associate superintendents.
SAU salaries this year range from $191,000 to $205,000 for high school principals; $178,000 to $184,000 for middle and elementary school principals; $155,000 to $174,000 for assistant principals; and $166,000 to $197,000 for directors in Central Office, according to the SAU contract.
The raises Mooney negotiated on behalf of the Board of Education amounted to 10.5 percent over three years.
That includes 4 percent for top-tier administrators and 3.5 percent for those in the remaining two tiers in the first year. In the second and third years, all administrators would get 3 percent raises.
Risk vs. possible reward
Mooney told elected officials that rejecting the agreement could cost taxpayers more than the $1.5 million in raises. Arbitration costs could amount to $50,000 to $100,000, Mooney said, and it’s unlikely that arbitrators will deviate much from the statewide salary increases for administrators, which last year averaged 8.7 percent, not much less than the SAU agreement.
That’s not the way to look at it, said city Rep. Nina Sherwood, a reform Democrat who voted against the contract proposal. The increases compound over time because subsequent raises are based on ever-larger salaries, Sherwood said.
“Going to arbitration is a risk, but there could be a reward,” she said. “Even if we come out of arbitration with a savings of $10,000 a year, it repeats over and over for taxpayers. It will end up covering the cost of arbitration.”
Republican city Rep. David Watkins said he doesn’t know whether the city “will do better or worse in arbitration,” but the raises were excessive and he would rather “take a stand than keep allowing an arbitrator to figure it out.”
Watkins voted to reject the contract proposal.
“Part of the argument was we are only a little bit more than some other towns,” Watkins said. “The trouble with that is that the process is all driven to whatever level the most willing township goes. Somebody has to stand up and say, no, I think that’s wrong.”
‘We usually don’t win’
City Rep. Amiel Goldberg, one of the board’s traditional Democrats, said it was an uneasy choice. Goldberg questioned what he would say to his constituents, many of whom earn salaries comparable to school administrators, if they asked why he voted for SAU raises nearly twice as high as what they are getting from their employers.
In the end, Goldberg voted to give school administrators the increases.
“For me, it was a risk-management decision about the risks and rewards of going to arbitration and paying legal fees versus taking a known cost in the contract,” Goldberg said after the board’s Tuesday vote. “I decided to go with the known rather than the unknown. I did not see a scenario in which the arbitration would get us a better deal than what we already had.”
City Rep. Megan Cottrell, chair of the board’s Education Committee, said she supported the contract because “arbitration is a $100,000 gamble which we usually don’t win.” Beyond that, administrators deserve the increase, she said.
“The working conditions for school staff are the learning conditions for our kids,” Cottrell said. “School administrators have been asked to change the way they do things overnight during COVID with little warning.”
Her fellow Democrat, city Rep. Jeff Stella, disagreed.
“It’s not about the work the administrators do. It’s a tough job,” Stella said. “I think that if you accept these numbers, you’re setting the bar for upcoming contracts. Right now the firefighters have no contract. We have to be also concerned about the money we will spend on the fire department. Arbitration has a cost, but there is a cost when you don’t push back.”
City Rep. Denis Patterson said he “just couldn’t justify” supporting the SAU raises.
“I thought it was a generous increase at a time when people are worried about inflation – energy costs and food costs are going sky-high, and the city is going to be in the same position this budget season,” said Patterson, a Democrat. “I also am concerned that this contract would set a precedent for future contracts. We did not get many concessions from this union, as we did from the custodians’ union.”
Contract ‘not for the kids’
During the same meeting, representatives unanimously passed a four-year agreement between the school board and the Stamford Board of Education Employees Association, which represents custodians and maintenance workers.
That contract gives workers – who earn a third to half what SAU members earn – a retroactive increase of 2.5 percent for 2021, and 4 percent for this year and each of the next two years. It will cost $160,000, but union members agreed to overtime and other work-rule changes that will realize $182,000 in savings for taxpayers.
The Board of Education did not insist upon that in the SAU negotiation, Sherwood said.
“The people at the Board of Education really need to start tightening the belt. This contract was not for the kids,” Sherwood said. “With the property revaluation this year and inflation, people are struggling. The Board of Education needs to take that seriously.”
Board of Education President Jackie Heftman did not return an emailed request for comment.
Members of the Stamford Board of Finance, who recommended that representatives reject the SAU agreement, have said the raises are unrealistic when the Board of Education is facing a “fiscal cliff.”
The district must find $9 million by the end of the 2023-24 school year to cover 120 positions that were filled using federal COVID relief funding that runs out at that time.
The finance director for schools has warned of budget hikes of 5.3 percent – twice the usual annual increase – for the next two years to pay for those positions plus escalating costs of wages, benefits, health care, student transportation and utilities.
They came in crying
The added costs come as Stamford residents face the results of a state-mandated property revaluation inflated by a hot buyers’ market during the COVID-19 pandemic. The revaluation sent home values soaring 25 percent, and in some cases double, triple and quadruple that.
People are nervous about how that will affect their tax bills, city Rep. Bradley Bewkes said.
“When I found out that the value of my home increased 79 percent, I scheduled a hearing with Municipal Valuation Services,” the company hired by the city to do the revaluation, said Bewkes, a Republican. “The woman from MVS said people are coming in crying. People have felt uncertainty since COVID hit in January 2020 and the reval is adding to it. They are scared of what the future looks like. This is a time to be more fiscally conservative.”
Matt Forker, co-president of the SAU, said attorneys for the union and the school board agreed to an arbitrator when negotiations began, and that person will determine what happens next.
“We have to basically go back to the drawing board,” Forker said.
Union members “are disappointed, obviously, but we are not upset with the Board of Reps. They were concerned enough to vote no,” Forker said. “Boards are charged with being fiscally responsible; they are doing what they are elected to do.”
The SAU engaged in good-faith negotiations with the Board of Education, Forker said, but “we were prepared for some pushback – any time you’re giving an increase to people with these salaries, it raises eyebrows.”
City Rep. Sean Boeger, a Stamford police officer and former president of his union, said the two sides can decide to reopen the contract proposal.
“They don’t have to go to arbitration. If the union agrees to take smaller raises, the contract might become palatable to some on the Board of Reps,” Boeger said. “But it’s more likely the union will say that the Board of Education already agreed to this amount, so we’re not going to agree to reopen anything, and we’ll go to arbitration.”
Arbitration “is risky for the city but risky for the union as well,” Boeger said, because if the agreement comes back as an arbitrated deal, the Board of Representatives can reject it with a two-thirds vote.
Boeger said he thinks representatives wanted to make a statement.
“I have heard it echoed more than once that, even if we don’t get a better deal in arbitration, it’s just as important to send a message to the Board of Education that we’re not giving away the farm on labor contracts,” he said.