Greenfield school negotiations hit rough patch

Sides charge unfair labor practices, issue trespass order

GREENFIELD — Over the past six months, the Greenfield Education Association and Greenfield School Committee have each filed unfair labor practice charges against one another, which has complicated ongoing negotiations on a new state-mandated teacher evaluation system and the completion of the union’s 2011-2014 contract.

The two sides have seen progress in the past month and are close to an agreement on teacher evaluations after a productive four-hour meeting Thursday. And a three-year union contract, which had been ratified but not signed for almost a year, was finally completed last month.

But their relationship continues to be strained by a trespass order the school board made against the union’s Massachusetts Teachers Association field representative Paul DeMarco in March, which bans him from setting foot on Greenfield school grounds for one year.

The state’s department of labor relations has found probable cause, and issued a complaint last month and three more last week, on four charges made by the union. The state is requiring that the two sides attend a state-scheduled mediation session on August 7 and will continue to investigate the charges at future labor hearings.

Other charges, including one by the school board against the union, are still under investigation.

The union alleges that the School Committee bargained in bad faith by banning DeMarco from school grounds, canceling a previously scheduled negotiation session and hiding state correspondence from the union. It also alleges that school administrators altered a part of the union’s 2011-2014 contract, which was ratified by both parties last summer but had not yet been signed.

School Committee Chairman John Lunt denied the latter two accusations, saying that the union is to blame for the changes in the contract. And he said the school board issued the trespass order and canceled the meeting because of a “pattern of confrontational behavior (by DeMarco) that really concerned many of the members of the School Committee.”

Greenfield Education Association president Thomas Bevacqua called the trespass order a “thorn in our side,” and said it has made it difficult for the union to carry out routine business.

The catalysts for the charges

Most of the charges stem from events that occurred in February.

State Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester wrote to school and union officials on Jan. 28 that Greenfield was at risk of losing “Race to the Top” federal grant money, because the department was delaying in deciding on an educator evaluation plan. The state has since said it didn’t end up imposing penalties.

The new law requires teachers and administrators to perform a self-assessment, work with evaluators to set goals both for themselves and their students and then be assessed against those individualized standards. But the new law leaves many issues — like who will perform the evaluations, how they will be done and when they will occur — up to local school committees and unions to negotiate.

The union alleges that Lunt and Superintendent Susan Hollins both knew about and intentionally hid Chester’s letter. Lunt said that he hadn’t seen the letter until the union brought it to his attention at a Feb. 15 meeting. According to the state, the letter was addressed to Hollins, Lunt and Bevacqua.

This debate, and others revolving around alleged changes made to the union’s contract, became public during the School Committee’s Feb. 28 meeting — a night that would ultimately be remembered more for a vote that, at the time, seemed to spell the end for the department’s virtual school.

During the public comment section of that meeting, DeMarco attempted to pass out documents to the School Committee, including Chester’s letter.

School attorney Peter Smith told the Committee that some of the documents discussed a confidential matter regarding one of the department’s teachers while others pertained to ongoing negotiations. After nearly 15 minutes of debate (public comment is usually three minutes per person), Smith recommended the documents be submitted in a non-public session and collected the documents back from School Committee members.

DeMarco then began to summarize some of the union’s complaints about recent negotiations, calling it the “single worst case of bad faith bargaining” he had witnessed in his career. He accused Hollins of making changes to the union’s 2011-2014 contract — the basis for another of the unfair labor practice charges, and something that school officials assert was actually the union’s doing.

It was then that Chairman John Lunt cut him off, saying, “You’re done,” before telling a sound engineer to turn off the microphone. DeMarco left the meeting, telling the school board as he left that he planned to file charges.

Lunt said DeMarco repeatedly ignored his warnings to keep the public comment brief and to not disclose confidential information.

“There were Committee members who felt intimidated by him and he was disclosing information that should have been protected,” said Lunt. “He ignored my warnings on time and on decorum.”

A trespass order against DeMarco

DeMarco deferred comments to Bevacqua because MTA reps are not authorized to talk to the press.

Bevacqua, who attended the meeting with a number of teachers, said he doesn’t believe DeMarco acted out of line.

So the union was upset when the next day Smith emailed DeMarco to cancel a scheduled negotiation session ­— the basis for another unfair labor practice charge. Lunt said he simply felt that the meeting would have been counterproductive after the past night’s events.

A Greenfield police officer attended the committee’s March 21 meeting, per Lunt’s request. The chairman said that he had heard DeMarco was planning on attending that meeting as well, though ultimately that did not happen.

“It is my job to make sure ... that those meetings are in a matter that is open and inclusive but it is also my job to make sure that they are safe,” said Lunt. “I have never in six years on the School Committee seen anything close to that kind of outburst. ... I did what I thought was correct and I would do it again.”

Eight days later, the Committee issued a trespass order against DeMarco, banning him from all Greenfield school grounds for one year.

“Your threatening and intimidating conduct has caused the Superintendent of Schools and members of the School Committee to feel unsafe in your presence,” wrote Smith in a letter to DeMarco, according to a document attached to one of the unfair labor practice charges.

The Committee also asked the Massachusetts Teachers Association to send a new representative to Greenfield. This request was denied.

Lunt said the February meeting was just the latest in pattern of confrontational behavior exhibited by DeMarco. School officials believe DeMarco once walked into an elementary school unannounced, without signing in.

Bevacqua disagrees and said DeMarco isn’t a threat. The union argued, in another charge, that DeMarco has been unable to participate in many of the meetings he would otherwise attend because of the trespass order. Negotiation sessions between the School Committee and the union have since been held at the Town Hall, and the union has had to rent out other spaces in town to meet with DeMarco.

“I would like to see (the trespass order) lifted today,” said Bevacqua, who acknowledged that relations have improved but cannot fully move forward until DeMarco is allowed back on school grounds.

Union/school relations

DeMarco took over as the Greenfield teachers union’s Massachusetts Teachers Association field representative in August. He is not a licensed attorney, but does represent Greenfield at negotiation sessions and hearings. He is also a field representative for the Frontier Regional and Ralph C. Mahar Regional school districts.

Both Lunt and Bevacqua say the relationship between school board and union took a downturn when DeMarco came on board.

“Under previous MTA representatives, any disputes were solved by people sitting down and speaking together reasonably,” said Lunt. “There has to be some basic mutual respect and understanding. There’s a feeling that some of Mr. DeMarco’s tactics don’t rise to that level.”

Bevacqua said that the school board had grown accustomed to working with former MTA representative Fred Doherty, a “gentle and kind” man. DeMarco simply has a different manner, he said.

And Bevacqua added that one of the union’s biggest complaints about the administration, which dates back before Superintendent Susan Hollins’ tenure, is that it “seems to take a long time to get things done.”

“When Paul became the MTA rep, that was not his style,” he said. “‘We’re going to get things done as soon as possible.’ And that simply didn’t go over well.”

But while Bevacqua called this past winter the lowest point he has seen in five years as union president, things seem to be improving.

“We’ve been talking to each other, no nasty emails back and forth. Things seem to be getting better,” he said.

Mayor William Martin, who chairs the school board’s negotiation committee, agreed and called the education evaluation negotiation group a “good working team.”

“I’d say without a doubt the relationship and the communication has improved greatly in the past month or so,” he said.

Hollins, who said she wasn’t free to comment on any of the negotiations or labor complaints, said she also has seen recent improvement in their relationship.

The two parties rectified their differences about the contract language and officially signed it last month. They hope to finish up teacher evaluation negotiations soon and then move on to salary negotiations for teachers who work extended learning time.

The unfair labor practice charges continue to move forward at the state level, but could potentially be resolved during the Aug. 7 mediation session.

You can reach Chris Shores at:

cshores@recorder.com

or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

GREENFIELD — The Greenfield School Committee and Greenfield Education Association have signed a three-year contract, which runs through June 2014. The contract was ratified by both parties last summer but had not been signed. In the year after it was ratified, both the school board and the union assert that the other side made unapproved changes to the pending contract, … 0

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