By Lauren Zaepfel
On the evening of Oct. 7, more than 150 North Tonawanda teachers gathered outside a school board meeting, signs in hand, expressing their unified message: After waiting more than four years, they want a contract that can give them more than what they've been dealt.
North Tonawanda School Board President Cheryl McMahon was not surprised by their request. "I understand completely their frustration, because it has been four years and both sides are working really hard to try and resolve it," she said.
Many of the teachers who took part in the informational picket attended the board meeting as it began. There, both representatives from the district and the union briefly stated their own stance.
Currently, the North Tonawanda teachers union and district school board are negotiating the main topics within a contract.
"We're negotiating the things that every union negotiates in a contract, which is their work time, their salary, their health care, all of those things are what we are negotiating," said North Tonawanda United Teachers President Ann Lentsch, who led the informational picket.
"Both of us, both the district and the teachers, are working really hard to make sure that everything is perfect for both sides," McMahon said. "There's no animosity or anything, it's more just trying to work it out, and that's just what it is."
McMahon spoke very highly of the teachers.
"One thing for sure that we all know in North Tonawanda is that we have some of the best teachers there are," she said. "They're just incredible teachers, incredible talent."
Despite this, she explained there is a need to make sure the district is fiscally healthy, as well.
"I think this is all about just trying to get a perfect balance between two things, so just getting a perfect balance between compensating teachers the way they should be compensated and also making sure ... the district is financially healthy, so that's just really the goal," McMahon said.
Lentsch provided some background information on events that have led up to the current negotiations.
"Obviously when we started this contract five years ago, the district was in bad financial straits, every district was at that time, and so we didn't push it too hard; we kind of, you know, laid it low key, negotiated a little bit, tried not to push it," she said.
According to Lentsch, during those years, the district approached the teachers and asked if they would be willing to give back some money in order to save teaching jobs as well as educational programs.
"We said 'Absolutely, we will do that,' " Lentsch said. "Over the course of the last few years, we've given back $16,000 each to the district, which is times 300-plus members, so that's over $400,000 that we've given back, hoping that this is in good faith and we'll get a contract."
McMahon was unable to pinpoint an approximate time for when a contract could be available, however she hopes the teachers will have one for 2016.
"I'm really positive that this year is going to be the year - this time - and it is really, really close. Nothing is definite, but that's our hope, that's our goal and we are really looking toward it," McMahon said.
On the other hand, Lentsch is not so sure a contract is on the horizon. "There were a lot of times when I thought we were very close and then we'd split apart again. So I'm hoping that, yes, there will be a contract in the near future, but, you know what? I've hoped that for going on five years and there are so many times when I've said to people, 'You know what? I think this is it,' and then I've disappointed them. So I don't know, I'm hoping, but I don't know," Lentsch said.
Lentsch and other union members planned to picket outside of North Tonawanda High School before Wednesday night's community informational meeting regarding the district's $39.5 million capital improvement project, which is set to be voted on by the community this month.