Wednesday November 14, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- The City Council has endorsed using $256,389 in city surplus funds to pay for the first-year salary increases in the Pittsfield teachers’ newly ratified three-year contract.

By 9-2 vote Tuesday night, with councilors Barry J. Clairmont and Christine Yon opposed, the 11-member panel approved Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi’s request to access Pittsfield’s certified free cash account to fund the 0.75 percent across-the-board pay hikes, retroactive to Aug. 25. The United Educators of Pittsfield had been working under an previous agreement that expired Aug. 24.

As for the remaining two years of the agreement, salary increases are directly tied to the amount of state aid Pittsfield Public Schools receive each year during the length of the contract. Depending on the availability of Chapter 70 money, the UEP pay raise for the second year of the contract ranges from 0.5 percent to 1 percent. In year three, from 0.75 percent to 1.25 percent.

"An up to 3 percent increase in three years, that’s modest," said Ward 5 Councilor Jonathan N. Lothrop.

The council wasn’t voting on the contract itself, but whether to fund the pay raises upfront.

While the majority of councilors sided with the mayor, Yon and Clairmont felt city school officials should find ways to fund the increases within the current school budget before spending city surplus money.

"I have no problem asking them to sharpen their pencil," Yon said. "If they come back for another request it could be substantially less than the amount they need."

"I’m not convinced they need the money [now]," added Clairmont. "Come back to ward the end of the fiscal year and show us you need it." Fiscal 2013 ends on June 30.

Clairmont was also critical of the School Department’s track record of returning unspent funds to the city’s cash reserves. He noted from fiscal 2009-2011, $13,000 in unused school money ended up in free cash, compared to $1.9 million from the city side of the budget during the same three-year period.

However, the School Depart ment did return $190,000 from fiscal 2012 which ended four months ago, a trend Bianchi hopes can continue.

"If there is money left over, it will be turned back," he said.

The three-year agreement the UEP and School Com mittee finalized on Oct. 24 ended a string of one-year deals dating back to the 2008-09 school year following sometimes contentious negotiations.

The series of one-year deals were primarily a result of the city’s volatile budget situation and the inability of both parties to iron out differences over non-money issues.

The committee and union leaders credit a new negotiating strategy, called interest-based bargaining, in helping negotiators reach a three-year accord that expires Aug. 24, 2015. Employed at the start of the contract talks in March, interest-based, or collaborative, bargaining begins with a philosophical approach to reaching a new contract.

The UEP and school board had previously relied on the traditional collective bargaining process. That method involves union and management having pre-determined positions on issues such as wages and benefits.

While collective bargaining resulted in the four, one-year contracts, settlements for the school years of 2009-2010 and 2010- 2011 came after months of contentious talks. In both cases, a state mediator was called in to resolve the labor dispute and teachers enacted a process known as "work to rule" in order to spur a tentative agreement.