MADAWASKA, Maine — With teachers still reeling from a Madawaska School Committee vote Monday to reduce their salaries by 9.45 percent, a lawyer representing the teachers is warning that the school department could be sued if it proceeds with the cuts.
In a letter sent Tuesday to members of the Madawaska Education Association — the bargaining arm of the local school system’s teachers — Shawn Keenan, Maine Education Association general counsel, said the salary cuts were made in bad faith.
“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,” Keenan wrote in his letter dated Dec. 4.
On Monday, members of the Madawaska teachers’ association negotiating team met for five hours behind closed doors with members of the school committee’s negotiation team and the superintendent to discuss reopening the association’s collective bargaining agreement. That meeting was prompted by a voter mandate in November to cut $525,000 from the proposed school budget.
Then on Monday afternoon, more than 200 residents packed into the Madawaska High School library for the school committee meeting and stayed through a nearly two-hour-long executive session in which the full committee addressed the reopened collective bargaining agreement.
Teaching positions, academic and athletic programs and extracurricular activities were all on the chopping block as the Madawaska School Committee looked for ways to cut more than $525,000 from the current budget.
According to comments made at the start of Monday’s open school committee meeting by Gisele Faucher, veteran Madawaska teacher and member of the negotiating team, the team that day had put forth an offer to reduce teacher salaries by 5 percent over three years through a combination of pay cuts and furlough days and with the knowledge the proposal could still result in elimination of teaching positions.
Moments later, the five members of the school committee voted unanimously instead to cut teacher salaries by 9.45 percent, to reduce administrative salaries by 2 percent, and to implement three furlough days.
“The action we took was a direct result of the mandate we were given by the people,” Dube said Tuesday night. “The school committee made a decision and the association has every right to challenge that decision.”
Dube said that night that he had not yet seen the MEA’s letter.
Superintendent Terry Wood, who had received a copy of the MEA letter, said Wednesday morning that she had spoken to members of the teachers’ association.
“We are working on the issue and are really trying to meet each other where we need to be,” she said.
Last month voters rejected the proposed school budget, which included a $275,000 increase over the previous year. The residents mandated that the school committee reduce the proposed budget by $525,000 before presenting it to voters again. Those same voters approved a municipal budget which reflected $250,000 in cuts over the previous year.
The need for the budget cutbacks was prompted by property tax abatements granted to Twin Rivers Paper Co., reducing its valuation from $170 million to $85 million over a four-year period beginning in fiscal year 2010.
“We were shocked by the [school] committee’s [9.5 percent] proposal,” Jenny Bechard, Madawaska teacher and association co-president said immediately following Monday’s meeting. “That is not what we came up with in [today’s] negotiations at all.”
It is well-established labor law, according to Keenan in his letter, that an employer’s “unilateral alteration of the terms and conditions of employment after the expiration of a collective bargaining agreement constitutes a violation of that employer’s statutory duty to bargain in good faith.”
Should the school department go ahead with the 9.5 percent cuts, Keenan said in the letter, the school system could be required under law to reimburse any wage reductions implemented under a bad faith agreement.
On Tuesday, Dube said he would not be surprised if both sides of the issue feel the need for a “cooling off period” after Monday’s meeting.
“This does not mean in the interim we cannot have discussions about any of these things,” he added. “But I think we should start leaving strong rhetoric behind and work together [and] the school committee would welcome meeting with the teachers’ association again.”
Following Monday’s vote, Wood said she would work out details of the proposed cuts before posting warrant articles for a special town meeting during which a new budget would be presented to Madawaska voters. A date for that meeting has not yet been determined and it was unclear Wednesday morning how the latest developments would affect plans to hold it this month.