By Eric Usinger
Three years have passed, two parties have argued continually while a community remains asking just a single question; what went wrong?
In this time the Massapequa Board of Education and the Massapequa Federation of Teachers have gone through a number of measures designed to bring about a contract settlement. And, so far, not a single method has proven successful.
Teachers in the district are still working without a contract settlement, the board of education remains united in their stance on the issue and the common resident in the community is still uncertain what the debate is about.
The common response, by the average resident, is "well the teachers are working without a contract." But when asked "why" few give an answer beyond "well because they don't like what they are being offered."
The dispute began back in May, 1995 when the board of education and the teachers union submitted their proposals for a new three year contract.
The board of educations proposals called for a number of salary, fringe benefit, and health insurance roll backs.
The boards proposals included:
the elimination of all salary schedule lanes except BA, MA and MA 30. The existing contract included salary schedule lanes for BA 15, BA 30, and MA 15. Teachers in the Massapequa School District are paid in accordance to their education and length of time in the district.
a proposal for the board of education to pay an amount equal to 90 percent of the cost of health and hospital insurance coverage.
changing the school year from 180 days to 182 days.
the elimination of the transfer clause and the preference sheet system. The transfer clause limits the ability of the district to move teachers from different grade levels and from one building to the next. The preference sheets give the teachers in the district the right to retain a certain number of classes for the next year.
The MFT's proposals included:
a proposal to place all teachers at, or above, the fiftieth percentile in salary for Nassau County.
an increase in the number of sick days for employees.
a guaranteed 2 year leave of absence.
the elimination of lunch duty at all grade levels.
the implementation of binding arbitration and the addition of a non-harassment clause on a professional level.
Both sides in the negotiations could not come up with a compromise settlement. The MFT had proposed a 4 percent increase in salary, over three years, while the board's proposal called for a 1.8 percent salary increase.
Union officials argued that the 1.8 percent figure was below the annual cost of living index while the the school board contended that the unions 4 percent figure was unrealistic.
Both sides met approximately 12 times to negotiate a new contract. The MFT then declared an impasse and submitted a Declaration of Impasse to the Public Employees Relations Board (PERB).
An Impasse, in the technical definition of the word, means deadlock. Neither side could find room for compromise.
PERB then appointed a mediator to assist both parties in their quest to find common ground. The mediation process was unsuccessful.
Eventually the union asked for a New York State Public Employees Relations Board fact-finder to be appointed to draw up a compromise resolution for settling the dispute.
As time passed, school board meetings became battlegrounds for the contract issue. Pickets increased, union tactics slowly changed and the issue moved very little from the original proposals from May, 1995.
On Oct. 22, 1996 the Massapequa Board of Education appointed a special attorney to deal with the negotiations. The law firm of Guercio & Guercio was contracted, at a retainer pay rate, to represent the district. Guercio & Guercio, one of three firms on Long Island that have cornered the educational labor market in recent years, at the time represented 32 school districts.
Locally Guercio & Guercio represented the Farmingdale School District straight through to their contract settlement. The Farmingdale dispute lasted for two years.
To a certain extent the Farmingdale union dispute mirrored the Massapequa conflict. Teachers in Farmingdale picketed the homes and businesses of the board of education, protested before school board meetings and before morning classes.
"I think the way the teachers union handled themselves [in Farmingdale] regarding the school board president was bad and what they did to him [Farmingdale School Board President Gary Karp] was terrible," reflected Plainedge School Board President Josephine Reder. "Unfortunately he [Karp] passed away and I wonder how much of the stress that he was under contributed to that."
And, on Saturday Sept. 21, 1996, the Farmingdale Federation of Teachers joined with the Massapequa teacher's union to protest in front of Massapequa High School. Farmingdale teachers carried signs declaring that they were "working without a contract" while Massapequa teachers declared "settle now."
The Plainedge School District, which is experiencing a similar type of contract dispute, has also begun to mirror the early stages of the dispute in Massapequa and Farmingdale.
"Massapequa is a year ahead of us," said Plainedge Superintendent Genne Grasso.
On August 23, 1996 the Public Employees Relations Board appointed Robert Douglas as the fact-finder in the impasse between the MFT and the district. Douglass met with both sides for the first time on Oct. 28 and conducted a fact-finding hearing on Nov. 26. The fact-finder then went home and left both sides, waiting for the report, in the meantime.
As time progressed the tactics of the Massapequa union began to change. Some included:
wearing all black clothing on Fridays.
protesting in front of the homes of members of the board of education and, more recently, the home of Superintendent James Brucia.
distributing information revealing the addresses of the residences of members of the board of education.
wearing all black on the days of class photos in the elementary schools.
placing advertisements in the Pennysaver, Massapequan Observer and the Massapequa Post urging residents for their support in the dispute.
For the most part, throughout 1996, many residents said that they accepted the tactics of the teachers union as a normal part of the dispute; until November.
Sometime in mid-November, the MFT leadership decided to take out a full page advertisement in Newsday. The move caused a great deal of anger, and concern, to spread throughout the community.
The ad read:
For Sale in Massapequa: Educational Priorities
If you are considering buying a home in Massapequa School District #23, you should know the following:
There is an on-going labor dispute between the Board of Education and its employees. Teachers, secretaries, monitors, teachers assistants, nurses, cafeteria staff, and other staff are in their second year without a new contract.
Sherry L. Prinzo from Newpoint Realty, which is located on Park Boulavard in Massapequa Park said that back in November realtors were concerned the unions action would cause the value of homes in the area to decline. However, she said that this has not been the case. "If anything the Massapequa real estate market is stronger then ever," Prinzo noted.
From this point on, the dispute began to continually escalate. In January, 1997 the MFT held their election for union president. Current President Ruth Emler, a retired district employee, was challenged by MHS teacher Richard Goldman. Goldman, considered a "hard-liner" by sources close to the MFT, narrowly lost the election by 44 votes. 490 votes were cast.
The message sent through-out the union leadership was to intensify pressure for a contract settlement favorable to union demands.
Around this time, while both sides awaited the fact-finder's report, the union began conducting "community seminars" to take their case to the public. Attendance was low at the meetings and a backlash resulted.
On Jan. 7 a small group of parents with school aged children began protesting the union's community seminars.
Mary Gavin, a parent whose child is a student at Birch Lane Elementary School said that it was time for teachers to return to their traditional roles-- teaching -- and to spend less time protesting. "They (the teachers) are not really happy and it's coming down on our children," said Gavin in a January interview.
Gavin, along with parent Carol DeSoucey, feel that, in light of the "lower than expected" marks on the New York State Report Cards for the Massapequa Public Schools, it was time for teachers to get back to business.
DeSoucey, a certified teacher, said the teachers "ought to spend less time at the bargaining table and more time teaching."
The percentage of students passing the regents exams in English, Mathematics Course III, Biology, Chemistry, the Regents Global Studies, and Occupational Education had declined from the school year 1993-94, before the contract expired, and 1995-96, after the teachers returned to school without a contract settlement.
Throughout the months of January and February the tension and public displays of emotion intensified to a peak level. School board trustee Diane Krakoff acknoledged, back in February, that "because it's been going on for a long time and the fact we've been waiting for that report, for middle ground, does cause tension"
Richard Gale, a MHS English teacher argued at a public meeting on Feb. 13, the last before the fact-finder issued his report, that "there is an erosion going on here and it can't last forever. We are tired of not having respect, tired of not being appreciated and you can only continue like this for so long. Eventually you collapse and your spirit dies. I love my students but I hate being treated with no respect and appreciation. "
And finally, after an number of delays, PERB fact-finder Robert Douglass issued his report on Feb. 26. Douglass laid out a point by point analysis of the issues raised by the union and by the district.
The recommendations included:
a 2.5 percent increase in salary for each year of the new contract. Or, a 2.8 percent increase if both parties agree to a teacher contribution to the health insurance plan.
the elimination of the transfer clause and preference sheet system with the provision that the district exercise their new rights for "sound educational reasons."
the district retain the current school year without adding additional days.
The report stated, "the fact-finder believes that these concrete recommendations constitute an appropriate and equitable framework for resolving the long standing impasse."
The union quickly rejected the report.
At the next public meeting held after the report was issued, MFT President Ruth Emler handed a letter to attorney Greg Guercio stating that the teacher's union rejects the recommendations in their entirety.
Once again the union began picketing and protesting. At one point the home of Dr. James Brucia, Superintendent of Schools, was picketed on a Saturday afternoon by members of the MFT.
The next step in the process was a set of meetings with a New York State super-conciliator. The last of the five meetings with the super-conciliator ended with both parties going home, without a new contract, and without a foreseeable end to this three-year dispute.
Don Nobile, vice-president of the Massapequa Federation of Teachers, stated immediately after, "negotiations have broken down and broken off."
"Nobody from the MFT met directly with the board of education," argued Nobile in explaining why the method failed. "There was no face to face contact."
Nobile added that the union was now "willing to make changes in our transfer sheets and preference clauses in order to reach a settlement."
Newly elected School Board President Robert Thompson said he saw the situation differently. "Unfortunately," Thompson said, "the union is only willing to make a compromise if the taxpayers pay for it."
Once again, in what origionally seen as a final attempt to reach a settlement, both sides were back to square one.
This changed last week.
For the first time the board put forward a proposal that exceeded the fact finders recommendations.The proposal, made public by Guercio at their Aug. 30 meeting, proposed a five year set of salary increases which surpass the recommendations outlined in the fact-finders report.
The new proposal included:
a set of salary increases equal to 2.5, 2.75, 3.0, 3.25 and 3.5 percent over a five year period.
the retention of the transfer clause and preference sheet system with revisions to them.
However, the board added, in exchange for the new increases, a new item which was not mentioned in the fact-finders recommendations.
The new stipulation in the board's proposal was for an additional day of classroom instruction starting in 1998-99 and a second additional day of instruction to begin in 1999-2000. Also the district asked for the teachers to contribute 30 hours of staff development on an annual basis.
"The fact that they indicated a willingness to spend more money is good but that fact that they are asking for more time isn't going to make a settlement happen," said MFT vice-president Don Nobile.
However, in another first, Nobile stated that the union would now be willing to make a contribution to the health insurance. The district had been asking for a 10 percent co-payment. Nobile said the union would be willing to meet the district "midway."
To date, the MFT and the district have agreed to hire a new mediator to help the two parties close the gaps in their differences.
Martian Scheinman, a nationally recognized mediator, has been called in, at the dual expense of the union and the board of education, to help break the impasse. "He's not our man, he's not their man, he's a guy who likes to get things done," said School Board President Robert Thompson.
"I am very positive that the new mediator that had been asked to come in will break the logjam," said Thompson. However he added that, "without dramatically raising taxes their isn't a great deal of flexibility."
Don Nobile said, "We think that the district needs to come up with some more money if they want there to be a settlment in the end."
"Is it money, is it control? I hope the mediator will be able to cut down to the facts of all this," said School Board President Robert S. Thompson.
Thompson added, "If both sides are series then this whole issue can be settled in a couple of weeks. I know the board is serious, now let's let the union show that they are serious."
In the meantime the union, according to Nobile, has a number of events scheduled to "apply pressure" on the board to end the dispute.
"What this is causing is an apathetic feeling in the community," said Sherry L. Prinzo of New Point Realty. "What they're doing, the union, is to do more harm to the teachers."