Sunday February 17, 2013

LENOX -- As contract negotiations between the School Department and three bargaining units move into their final few weeks, an apparent gap has developed between the limited increase funding proposed by the town and the salary increases likely to be sought.

Although the talks are held behind closed doors through executive sessions at School Committee meetings, Superintendent Edward W. Costa III outlined some of the complications during an interview with The Eagle this week. The negotiations are on behalf of all 91 full- and part-time teachers and 58 other staffers in the 800-student school district.

Costa explained that "interest-based" bargaining, a "kinder, gentler, more unified" bargaining technique, is being used, replacing a more traditional, sometimes confrontational labor-management approach.

"It’s really about people working together," he said. "This is about a synergy of minds and the interests of both parties, the School Department and the Lenox Education Association, and we try to find where we have common interests and jointly start to define plausible resolutions."

"It’s a lot more time intensive but the end product is better," he added. An outside "facilitator" provided by the New York Board of Arbitration and Conciliation, Cynthia Jefferies, has been brought into the talks. She is often involved in Berkshire County negotiations, Costa said.

The teachers contract expires Aug. 31, while the contracts for paraprofessional, custodial and other employees end on June 30.

Costa said while the length of a proposed new contract is "a negotiable item," both parties are interested in a three-year agreement.

While Town Manager Gregory Federspiel’s proposed budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year aims at 2 percent a year pay increases for municipal employees, Costa noted that the available increase in spending for the School Department totals $189,000.

That allows only for a level-funded $8.6 million operating budget (not including benefits) for the upcoming year.

"If existing staff are to be paid with any kind of increase, and we don’t know the size of that because it’s in negotiation, we’d have to subtract it from non-salary items," the superintendent said.

"We’re going to know a lot more in the next 30 days," Costa declared.

The town is at full capacity for school-choice students, about 200, representing 25 percent of the total student body. "School choice is used only to fill existing capacity," he noted. The state Legislature has provided incoming revenue of $5,000 per school-choice student.

According to the town manager’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, total School Department spending, including benefits, comes to$11,072,000, compared an overall town operating budget of $16,301,000.