MADAWASKA, Maine —The Madawaska School Committee is now backing off a plan to cut teaching salaries by nearly 10 percent and is looking to negotiate a new proposal with the teachers’ union.
After being mandated by residents last month to cut $525,000 from a proposed school budget, the five members of the school panel voted unanimously on Monday night to cut teacher salaries by 9.45 percent, reduce administrative salaries by 2 percent, and implement three furlough days.
But on Tuesday, the school committee received a letter from the Maine Education Association’s general counsel warning that the proposal could “constitute an unlawful refusal to bargain in good faith” and open the school department up to litigation.
“We are being told if we pursue [the 9.45 percent salary cuts] we can get into some heat so I guess we will have to back away from that,” Yves Dube, school committee chairman, said Friday.
Dube said the two sides need to go back to the table and discuss what salary reductions would be mutually agreeable to help reduce the budget.
Members of the Madawaska Education Association, which represents the local teachers, said Friday that the letter from the Attorney Shawn Keenan of the statewide union was a warning and not a threat to the school committee.
“Some people are asking us why we are suing our school,” said Gisele Faucher, a teacher and member local negotiating team. “We are not; we are just reminding them what the law says [and] that everything needs to be done the right way.”
The negotiating team had met with the superintendent and school committee for about five hours behind closed doors earlier on Monday. Teaching positions, academic and athletic programs and extracurricular activities were all on the chopping block as the school panel looked for ways to cut more than a half million dollars from the current fiscal year budget. It was during that meeting the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement was reopened for negotiation and the teachers reportedly offered to accept reducing salaries by 5 percent over three years.
“We went to the table and made a good honest effort,” Bonnie Plourde-Tingley, Madawaska fifth-grade teacher and co-president of the Madawaska Education Association, said Friday afternoon.
A few hours later on Monday, however, the school committee voted during the public hearing on the more drastic cuts to teacher salaries.
That led to the letter the next day from Keenan, who wrote, “Please be assured that any action by the [school] committee to unilaterally impose such a wage reduction or furlough days will constitute an unlawful refusal to bargain in good faith.”
Dube, the school committee chairman, said Friday, “Our proposal was only in bad faith if we applied that decision.
“We were hoping if we could get the teachers to agree on the cuts it would save programs, sports and jobs,” he said. “Now to get to the savings, it may hurt a lot more.”
Dube said he has asked the association to meet with the school committee at its earliest possible convenience.
On Friday Plourde-Tingley said the association has provided Dube with some possible meeting dates.
“It won’t be next week,” she said. “There are a lot of people we need to get together and this is a busy time of year for everyone.”
When the two sides do sit down, Plourde-Tingley said, she believes all talks will be focused on what is best for the children in Madawaska.
“The kids need to be educated, that is the biggest thing,” she said. “We definitely want to work with the school committee and we have been working with them.”
At some point the board will have to agree on the budget reduction proposals and take them to the voters at a special town meeting which can only be held 10 days after the budget warrant items are posted.
“We have got to meet to see if we can come up with something,” Dube said. “We are going to have to draw up the warrant shortly.”
Superintendent Terry Wood was out of the office and unavailable for comment on Friday.
But Faucher of the local teachers’ association said, “We know the superintendent has been working hard at her budget. We know she is looking at all possible avenues and we are hoping this will come to a resolution shortly.”