Support for Fairfield teacher contract split along party lines, passes RTM

Teachers turned out in force to Monday's Representative Town Meeting to show support for their new three-year contract. The contract was approved by a vote of 24 to 11. Fairfield,CT. 1/29/18
Teachers turned out in force to Monday's Representative Town Meeting to show support for their new three-year contract. The contract was approved by a vote of 24 to 11. Fairfield,CT. 1/29/18Genevieve Reilly / Genevieve Reilly

FAIRFIELD — Republicans on the Representative Town Meeting slammed the new teachers’ contract as too rich for the town, but no longer in the majority, they failed in efforts to reject the bargaining agreement Monday night.

The RTM voted 24 in favor, and 11 against, with the vote breaking down along party lines, as many of the town’s teachers packed the meet.

The three-year contract calls for 1.55 percent wage and half-step increase in the first year, 2.92 percent wage and half-step increase in the second year, and 3.52 percent wage and full step increased in the final year.

RTM members who spoke against the contract were quick to point out their support for teachers or the fact that a family member was a teacher.

Peter Ambrose, R-1, said the increases compounded annually amount to 8.2 percent, and the increases are much greater than the current rate of inflation.

“I do not believe we can afford to continue to increase our labor costs faster than the rate of inflation at a time when we face draconian risks and challenges to our town budget,’ Ambrose said.

Ambrose cited slow personal income growth in the state, the state’s fiscal crisis, the GOP tax bill passed by Congress, and the town’s “eroding” tax base.

But Bill Gerber, D-2, argued that the compounded annual increase never turns out to be that high because of teacher retirements and turnover.

“There was a $2.6 million reduction in wages over the last three years because of retirements,” Gerber said. “There was another $1.5 million offset for non-retirement turnover.”

The last contract called for annual increases of 3 percent, or 9 percent in total. However, the actual total increase over those three years was 3.9 percent or 1.3 percent per year.

The teachers will also be paying 23 percent of their health premium costs, which is more than other town unions.

Bob Smoler, president of the Fairfield Educators Association, said he did a spreadsheet of all the state’s 169 towns, and those that invested in teacher contracts have seen their home values rise.

“The reality is, we will see turnovers,” Smoler said, adding that over the last seven years, teachers have twice taken step increases. As for teacher salaries, “We are completely uncompetitive in that zone.”

Brian Farnen, R-9, said an 8.2 percent raise is “just not reasonable” at this time. “The contract is out of whack with the national average,” he said,

Rowland Road resident Barbara Martell said she’s a mom whose five kids graduated from Fairfield schools, the wife of a local real estate agent, a senior citizen — and a teacher. “I appreciate taxes are difficult, I understand all of that,’ she said. As a teacher, we value your children. We value quality of education... Don’t sell them short.”

Another teacher at Fairfield Ludlowe High School recounted several recent instances of AP teachers leaving — some in the middle of the school year — to go to other, higher-paying school districts.

But Pam Iacono, R-8, a former school board member, said she worries what will happen in the third year of the contract when the increase is 3.52 percent. “What are we going to be asking our children to give up.”

Hannah Gale, D-6, said, however, that the last year of the contract was “back-loaded” with the higher increase because of the financial uncertainty of the state, and questioned the fiscal responsibility of rejecting the contract and sending it to arbitration. The last arbitration of a contract cost the town about $95,000. She asked Board of Finance Chairman Tom Flynn directly if he would really recommend rejecting the contract.

“Yes, I wish it didn’t have to come to the point arbitration,” Flynn said. “We have to worry about the totality of this.”

Stephen Sedor, the school board’s attorney, said the last arbitration over the administrator’s contract only dealt with one issue. Were the teacher contract to go to arbitration, there would be 30 potential issues on the table. “The cost of going to arbitration would be significant,” Sedor said. And, he said, once in arbitration, the union could ask for more than the 8.2 percent.