September 22, 2014

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Wadsworth Schools talks are at impasse on new contract

WADSWORTH — The union representing non-teaching employees at Wadsworth Schools is protesting the district’s decision to impose provisions of a contract that the workers rejected.

Wadsworth Educational Support Personnel Association members said they feel disrespected by the Board of Education unilaterally setting wage and benefits as proposed in the board’s “last and final offer” made in Nov. 28.

“We voted it down, then the board implemented it on Jan. 23 and said it’s retroactive to Jan. 1,” said JoNell Fox, president of WESPA and a janitor in the district.

WESPA represents 200 custodians, bus drivers, professionals, student aides, maintenance employees, crossing guards, secretaries and cafeteria workers.

The union has been in negotiations with the district since its contract expired in April. When no agreement was reached by the end of June, a federal mediator was called in.

Fox said “very good progress” was made, but the negotiations soured after the board made the Nov. 28 offer an ultimatum.

“At this point, the board’s attorney became rude, unprofessional and disrespectful,” she said.

The union’s negotiators reached a tentative agreement, but the proposal was voted down by the union members “because they felt it was not a fair contract.”

The board’s imposed contract provisions froze wages but significantly increased health insurance costs for the 49 union members who are full time, she said.

“With the new deductible, you could lose up to 8½ percent of your pay,” said Fox. “And we haven’t had raises in two years, not even a cost-of-living increase.”

Fox said teachers and administrators received pay increases to help compensate for their expenses under the new insurance plan, and that’s all her union is asking for.

“By implementing a contract on our members, the Wadsworth board will destroy the trust between the parties and the positive and collaborative relationship we have had with the board and administration,” she said.

Superintendent Dale Fortner said he was willing to continue negotiations, but the board was frustrated that the tentative agreement was rejected by the employees.

“We had completed our contract talks and settled with our teachers and hoped to do the same with (WESPA),” Fortner said. “We reached a tentative agreement that their union leadership signed off on in November, but then their union membership voted it down.”

“I guess I’m a little puzzled by a perception that we’re not listening or making progress,” he said.

At Monday’s school board meeting, union representatives called attention to the salaries of the district’s administrative personnel. That included Fortner, whose total compensation last year was $167,000, according to pay records requested by the union. That total includes $15,000 in contributions to a pension fund.

Fortner, 53, announced earlier this month that he was retiring, effective June 30.

The superintendent defended his pay, which was increased in September with the support of the school board.

“I think that I’m competitively paid for my responsibilities and my position and my education and training, and my experience as a superintendent,” he said.

Fox said her union members are affected much more by the changes to the health insurance than Fortner and other administrators.

Most employees in the union earn less than $30,000, she said, with only a few earning as much as $40,000 to $45,000. For those who receive insurance benefits, the new plan’s cost for maintenance drugs is going to be difficult to manage.

“For some people, you’re looking at an additional $1,200 cost out of pocket, plus the higher premium cost,” she said.

“We’re asking them to be reasonable in what they’re offering,”

Fox acknowledged the board offered a “stipend” of up to $300 to offset the insurance hike, but she said that wasn’t enough to cover the increase. She added that employees who receive step increases in pay — no matter how small — wouldn’t be eligible for the stipend.

Fortner said a meeting is scheduled next week with the union. Although he characterized the meeting as a continued negotiation, Fox said she had been told it wasn’t a bargaining session.

“They told us it’s just going to be to explain things,” she said.

She said the union would welcome a chance to continue negotiations, if the district agrees.

“We’re hoping we can resolve it quickly and come to a fair contract for everyone involved because this is a great community with great parents and we want to keep the attention on the kids,” Fox said.

If negotiations are halted, Fox said the union plans to file a complaint with the State Employee Relations Board.

Contact reporter Loren Genson at (330) 721-4063 or lgenson@medina-gazette.com.