Regional School Unit 13 Board Chairman Steve Roberts (left) is working on union contract negotiations. Credit: Stephen Betts | BDN

As a contract dispute stretches into its second year for teachers and its third year for support staff, leaders of the union representing Rockland-based Regional School Unit 13 educators have turned to mediation in an attempt to resolve the dispute.

Meanwhile, the Seacoast Education Association, the union that represents employees at schools in Rockland, Thomaston, South Thomaston, Owls Head and Cushing, is prepared to amplify protests if terms they find agreeable cannot be reached soon.

At the last two monthly school board meetings, a number of RSU 13 teachers and educational support staff lined the halls in silent protest,wearing buttons with the word “contract” slashed through it and holding signs stating how long they have worked without a contract.

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“[Working without a contract] is incredibly stressful, because we’re still doing our jobs,” said Seacoast Education Association president Lorrie Callaway, a fifth grade teacher at Owls Head Central School.

The contract dispute is the latest conflict for a district that has weathered Rockland’s withdrawal proposal, leadership changes and budget battles.

After failing to reach agreement through scheduled contract talks, a negotiation team consisting of representatives from the school board and the teachers union held their first mediation session on Oct. 11. A second mediation session is scheduled for Monday.

Contract negotiations for RSU 13 support staff have not yet gone to mediation.

The terms of RSU 13 teaching staff’s three-year contract expired in August 2016, meaning that district teachers are in their second academic year without a renewed contract. The contracts for the district’s educational support staff expired in June 2015, making this their third year without a renewed contract.

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Without renewed contracts, RSU 13 teachers and support staff have not received pay raises as would happen annually per the district’s pay-scale.

Callaway said she believes the first mediation session went well, but RSU 13 School Board chairman Steve Roberts was hesitant to agree.

“Since we didn’t come out with any agreement, I can’t say it was,” Roberts said. “Are we making progress? Maybe, I don’t know.”

While the specifics regarding the negotiation process are confidential, Roberts said the school board has made several offers that have been turned down.

Roberts said these offers would “benefit all of our employees from the standpoint of being competitive in the region.”

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Callaway said the two parties appear close to agreement on a salary structure but remain at loggerheads on proposed changes to benefits, notably health insurance. Lingering uncertainty about the contract’s status inhibits the district’s ability to attract and retain staff, she said.

“If you want to bring people in, you have to offer them something more. And if you want people to stay, you have to pay them,” Callaway said. “Right now, we can’t do either one.”

However, Roberts said the district’s now-expired contract is an impediment to attracting staff because “it doesn’t have a fair payscale with regards to younger and midscale employees.”

According to the lapsed contract, teachers with no experience and a bachelor’s degree earn $36,250 annually. Teachers at the top of the payscale — with 19 or more years of experience, a master’s degree and 15 additional credits — receive a salary of $63,889.

If Monday’s mediation does not result in an agreement, Callaway said teachers and support staff will again be protesting at the school board meeting in November.

Callaway said it is “tough to say” how long the Seacoast Education Association will continue with mediation before ramping up their protests by possibly voting to implement “work-to-rule.” Any work that falls outside of the time their contract legally requires teachers to be working would not be done. This could include participation on voluntary committees, writing recommendations or taking schoolwork home with them at night.

“You don’t just want to go to work to rule and just slam the door,” Callaway said. “We don’t want to make the board angry but we want the board to treat us like professionals.”

Roberts said a union call to “work-to-rule” would not “befriend them to the people in the community.”

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