BELFAST, Maine — More than 100 teachers carrying protest signs squeezed into the library at Belfast Area High School on Tuesday night to tell the RSU 20 board of directors what is on their minds — the stalled negotiations for a new contract.
The former contract expired last August, said Betty Lu Brown, an administrative assistant at the high school who also is president of the Educational Association by the Bay, the district’s educational union.
“We think people feel like we’re asking for huge amounts of money, which we’re not,” she said before the regular school board meeting. “We’re here for the kids.”
The contract was not on the agenda.
The signs that she and many others held read “RSU 20: Pay Teachers or Pay Attorneys,” referring to the union’s assertion that even though the two sides are just $16,000 apart in contract negotiations, the school board won’t budge. Now the contract process will move to the next phase of fact finding, when the state will convene a panel to listen to both sides and offer a settlement recommendation.
According to a press advisory from the Maine Education Association, fact finding and arbitration will cost the district thousands of dollars in attorney fees and mediators.
“The longer the dispute drags on, the lower the morale plummets in the schools,” stated the advisory.
RSU 20 Superintendent Bruce Mailloux said earlier Tuesday that he disputes the union’s figure and that negotiations for the $13 million contract have not broken down over $16,000.
“That is a position they have taken, based on a number put out very early in the negotiations,” he said. “There are many, many other issues involved in this.”
Brown and others disagreed with the superintendent, saying that they had sat down Monday with Mailloux and the school board’s attorney to go over those figures.
“They said it was correct right to the penny,” Brown said. “We’re a little in shock today that he said it wasn’t correct.”
According to the superintendent, negotiations for the new contract began in the fall of 2009 and was the first for the newly consolidated RSU 20. The contract needs to bring together the disparate teacher contracts for SAD 56 and SAD 34, where salaries and benefits were unequal.
“We knew going into it it was going to be a difficult negotiation,” he said.
During the public comment portion of the regular school board meeting, many teachers stepped forward to share their views with the directors. Although an effort was made early on to keep the teachers to a two-minute time limit, that quickly went out the window as teachers spoke passionately and often at length about the matter.
Belfast Area High School art teacher Charles Hamm said that he has worked at the school since 1989.
“With all the things going on in the country, in the state, locally, do the right thing — settle this contract,” he urged the board. “You’ve got to think things through and put your own feelings aside and do what’s right for this community.”
Many teachers also spoke in favor of keeping Frankfort Elementary School open, an issue that the board voted on later in the meeting.
Kevin Coombs, who teaches sixth grade at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast, said that he remains optimistic that the dispute will end.
“A contract binds people together to work diligently for a high ideal,” he said. “And the longer the contract dispute drags on, the more taxpayer money is lost.”
The teacher garnered enthusiastic applause from the crowd when he said that when he himself attended schools in the district as a boy, his teachers told him one day he would have to stand up and talk about what he believes in.
“I believe in the changing power of education,” Coombs said. “I believe in our school system.”