Caribou-area school board, teachers union resolve contract stalemate

Posted Feb. 25, 2014, at 5:21 p.m.

CARIBOU, Maine — A contract between the RSU 39 school board and the teachers union was resolved late Friday after a lengthy stalemate over what the school board called a clerical error in the document.

Ken Atcheson, chief negotiator for the Eastern Aroostook Education Association, said Tuesday that the school board members in attendance voted unanimously to ratify the three-year contract, as did the teachers union. Eastern Aroostook Education Association represents the teachers of RSU 39, which includes Caribou, Limestone and Stockholm.

“We are pleased that the contract has been negotiated in a mutually satisfactory way,” he said.

Ryan Drost, president of the education association, said Tuesday that he felt the teachers “lost ground” in the contract. The educators teach at schools in Caribou and Limestone. There are no schools in Stockholm. Drost said that teachers in Caribou will absorb a 2 percent decrease in their insurance coverage, with a 6 percent decrease for those in Limestone.

He said that teacher salaries will increase based on a step system tied to teaching experience. They did not negotiate a flat wage increase.

Frank McElwain, superintendent of RSU 39, could not be reached immediately for comment Tuesday, but said said in a written statement late last week that the matter had been a long and complicated process.

The contract, which will be in effect through 2016, was a long time in the making.

In March 2013, teachers in Caribou reached a tentative agreement after more than two years of negotiations, according to officials from Eastern Aroostook Education Association.

Earlier this year, however, citing what they called a clerical error, the school board refused to honor the document after both parties had reached an agreement. The alleged clerical error, according to education association officials, was an item that was bargained for and discussed during the long negotiation process, and had become a part of the jointly signed tentative agreement.

The issue the school board raised called into question if teachers would be penalized a sick day if they took a personal day. For example, if someone applied to use a personal day, the contract appeared to indicate it would cost them one sick day.

Teachers in the district are allowed 15 sick days and 2 personal days each year, but it’s rare for teachers to use them all, according to Atcheson.

Atcheson said that language was put in place to prevent a scenario where all teachers could use a personal day on the same date. He said that the language was included in the contract after a similar event happened elsewhere and noted that it was conceivable that in a small community, several teachers working in a small school might choose to use a personal day at the same time to attend a funeral, an event out of town or some other situation.

“It’s a small district, and you don’t want to have a situation where all of a sudden you need to find a large number of substitute teachers for the same day,” he said. “That would just be a huge burden for the district.”

Atcheson said the agreement negotiated by both parties included language that allowed for both sick days and personal days to be used mutually exclusive of each other.

He said last week that he felt that calling the issue a clerical error was “an insult to the people who work hard each day in our schools to help students succeed.” He also felt that dragging the process out for close to a year cost people money and reduced morale in every school in the district.

Atcheson said that it was only after both parties involved signed the tentative agreement in March of 2013 that a discussion about the clerical error was raised.

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