By Larry Austin
Island Dispatch Editor
Approximately 200 members of the Grand Island Teachers' Association and its supporters picketed before Monday's Board of Education meeting.
GITA has been without a new contract with the school district for a year, said Mike Murray, president of GITA. The picketers later attended the Board of Education session, prompting the board to move its meeting from the Professional Development Room to the Grand Viking Theater.
During the public comment portion of the agenda, Murray and GITA treasurer Nicole Oursler addressed the board, with Murray saying members of both GITA and School Related Professionals Union were attending the meeting "because we are concerned that over the last two years the district has lost focus on what is important: to establish transparency, improve communication and develop a culture for which all stakeholder groups can come together and be part of the process to move this district forward."
He further said he was speaking out because the district "is putting financial resources into the hands of lawyers and away from the people who are working with our children every day."
Grand Island Superintendent of Schools Dr. Teresa Lawrence said she didn't notice the picketing because she and board members were in a gathering to celebrate the "quality people that we employ" who had earned tenure or had announced their retirement.
Saying the relationship between the unions and district over the past two years "has entered a dysfunctional state," Murray charged the district's lack of communication with its unions "is having a negative impact on our effectiveness as a district. We have offered on many occasions to help be a part of long-range district planning. We were ignored."
Murray and Oursler said:
•Over the past two years, 70 percent of the administrators have left the district.
•The district leadership has chosen "to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on labor-related legal fees instead of holding open and honest discussions," Murray said.
•The district is weeks away from having all unionized employee bargaining units working without a ratified contract, Oursler said, noting the administrator contract expired two years ago, the GITA contract expired last year, and the School Related Professionals contract is set to expire in a few weeks. Lawrence said Tuesday the negotiations with the administrators union is "going very well," but coming to terms on a contract has stalled as that bargaining unit's leadership has turned over twice, as its members advance in their careers moving to positions in other districts.
"If all parties had been the same, we would have settled this," Lawrence said, adding she is hopeful that contract will be settled soon.
Murray claimed that, from Jan. 1, 2014, to March 4, 2015, the district paid over $232,000 to the law firm of Harter, Secrest and Emery for labor-related legal fees, including paying $8,950 in legal fees in a dispute with three district bus drivers before finally agreeing to pay the bus drivers two hours each for hours worked on what ended up being a snow day.
Tuesday, Lawrence countered the district has spent only 30 percent of what it spent last year on legal fees, and with regard to the bus driver dispute, Lawrence said the district has to resolve issues "that could potentially cost the district more money in the future, and that's what we did." The district decision was made based on its interpretation of the contract "and looking to protect the district with the potential of having to pay more in the future than what was spent on finding a resolution, which was found."
Regarding contract negotiations with the teachers union, Lawrence said Tuesday the district has "the responsibility to protect the taxpayers and to represent them well in offering fair and affordable contracts to our employees, and that's exactly what we're looking to do. The benefits inherent in a contract have a totality of dollars associated with them, and given the desire for current and future financial stability, the district is very keen in actively pursuing a settlement that is fair, that is just and that is affordable in today's current market."
Murray said at the picket line the union and district were on the verge of an agreement, with a contract extension supported by then Interim Superintendent of Schools Paul Hashem and Joe Giarrizzo, the former assistant superintendent of finance.
"One the eve of my arrival, prior to me starting, a proposal was presented to the board that the board did not act favorably on," said Lawrence, who marked her second full year on the job June 11.
The negotiating teams have "worked diligently to offer our largest union a fair contract that the current market, the current economy, can support and sustain not just for now, going forward."
Lawrence said its nothing personal between the district and its unions, and that "every single day the district values, supports, promotes, stands behind, invests in the quality of our teachers." She said GI has the "the best teachers, best employees, bar none."
"We believe that all seven of you are serving on the School Board because you want to help children and this community," Oursler said. "You need to believe us when we tell you that we teach for the Grand Island Central School District because we want the same thing. You need to believe us when we tell you that we want a fair contract. You need to believe us when we tell you that we want this district to move in a new direction. We need to work together, to settle our disputes through collaboration rather than through the expensive lawyers, to resolve the contract issues, and to create a district environment in which we all can be proud."
Mike Murray, president of the Grand Island Teachers' Association, addresses the Board of Education during the public comment portion of the meeting. (Photo by Larry Austin)