Members of the Stamford Board of Representatives took a risk last month and rejected a pricey contract for highly paid school administrators, sending it to state arbitration.
The school district’s attorney warned representatives of the unlikelihood that arbitrators would reduce the raises negotiated for 78 principals, assistant principals and Central Office directors – 10.5 percent over three years.
But representatives said they wanted to send a message to the Board of Education: consider the taxpayer, because raises that high are too much for administrators already earning $155,000 to $205,000 a year.
So some representatives had a hard time swallowing the pill they got Monday night.
They gathered by Zoom for a special meeting called just to vote on the arbitrated agreement for the Stamford Administrators Unit. They learned that administrators offered to reduce their raises in the third year of the contract by 1 percentage point.
Board of Education negotiators accepted the union offer and state arbitrators, seeing agreement on both sides, determined there was no need for further proceedings, representatives learned.
It means the $1.5 million in raises that the school board negotiated in the first version of the contract has been reduced by not quite $148,000.
It’s not much of a savings for taxpayers, representatives said. But they learned that, under state laws governing negotiations for teachers contracts, they could take it or leave it.
If the Board of Representatives rejected the arbitrated award by a two-thirds vote, said the school district’s attorney, Tom Mooney of Shipman & Goodwin, it would initiate something called second-look arbitration.
Then the state commissioner of education would appoint three arbitrators to review the deal and either reverse or affirm the last best offers made by both parties, Mooney said.
“In this case, the administrators’ union offered to reduce the salary settlement and the Board of Education accepted it, so there were no last best offers,” Mooney said, and, by law, “the arbitration panel must accept any agreement reached by the parties.”
So a Board of Representatives rejection of the renegotiated contract would “not change the outcome,” Mooney said.
“The education commissioner would appoint an arbitration panel and the city would be charged for their time, but since there are no last best offers to consider … it will not lead to a different result,” Mooney said.
Representatives had a lot of questions.
City Rep. Virgil de la Cruz wanted to know why the matter had to go to an arbitration panel if the administrators offered to reduce the third-year raise on their own.
It’s because of the timing of the offer, Mooney said.
“If the parties modified the agreement before the arbitration hearing, it would come to the Board of Representatives for consideration,” Mooney said, but “we got the offer during the arbitration process.”
City Rep. Bradley Bewkes wanted to know more about what the revised contract will cost taxpayers.
School district finance officer Ryan Fealey said the $12.3 million taxpayers pay in school administrators’ salaries will increase an average of $450,000 annually over the three-year contract.
Bewkes wanted to know the “bigger picture” cost to taxpayers, since subsequent raises for administrators will be based on ever-increasing salary bases. Fealey did not have an immediate answer.
According to the SAU contract, 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 Central Office directors. The union does not represent the superintendent or three associate superintendents.
Mooney last month told representatives that arbitration could cost Stamford taxpayers $50,000 to $100,000 in legal fees. He said Monday the cost of the uncontested arbitration would be less, but he did not know yet how much.
Bewkes wasn’t happy.
“Out of principle I will vote to reject this contract,” the representative said. “This is still very generous as a secured raise for three years. I don’t think we went far enough. The logistics of arbitration don’t make sense … I would rather stand up for taxpayers.”
De la Cruz wasn’t happy, either.
“As I look at this process I can only express my dissatisfaction,” he said. “The arbitration panel gets injected into the process, costing the city we don’t know how much money, and the net result of that … is to foreclose all our options … whatever we do here tonight means nothing.”
In the original agreement, raises in the first year were 4 percent for top-tier administrators and 3.5 percent for those in the remaining two tiers. In the second and third years, all administrators would get 3 percent raises.
The revised version has one change – in the third year, all administrators get 2 percent.
City Rep. Susan Nabel said she would vote to approve the revised agreement but wanted to speak first. The Board of Finance voted to recommend that representatives reject the initial agreement, which representatives then did, because “with this contract the Board of Education reached a breaking point,” Nabel said.
“The people who pay the bills, the taxpayers, some affluent and some not, looked at that and said, ‘This is completely out of my realm of reality and I don’t understand this,’” Nabel said. “I believe it was our job to say we can’t use this as a starting point” for considering contracts with other unions.
“We did our job in speaking up for taxpayers in recognizing an increase that was beyond the pale,” said Nabel, who thanked the administrators union for agreeing to the “small decrease.”
City Rep. Sean Boeger, a Stamford police officer and former head of that union, said he would “begrudgingly vote for this contract,” even though Mooney and the Board of Education president, Jackie Heftman, have advertised it as a good deal.
“It’s evident by the reaction of the union that agreed to drop a whole percentage point … that the negotiating team at the Board of Education was not stringent enough in their task,” Boeger said. “We don’t know if what is before us now is truly a representation of what we could achieve for the taxpayer … who knows if we could have saved more if the negotiations were more aggressive? I fully support organized labor, but to me this smacked of low effort in achieving a fair deal for the taxpayer.”
Thirty-three of the 40 members of the Board of Representatives attended Monday night’s special meeting. Four voted to reject the contract on principle – Bewkes, de la Cruz, city Rep. Nina Sherwood and city Rep. Jeff Stella. Four other representatives abstained from voting.