Like their colleagues standing up for fair wages and education funding across the nation, Westport teachers came together last night, wearing red, in a show of strength and solidarity before the town’s Board of Education.
Year after year, Westport teachers have taken on a higher share of their healthcare premiums, and increased costs have often outpaced the small salary increases they have received. When the Westport Board recently asked the teachers to join the State Plan, the Westport Education Association (WEA) asked for a small reduction in the percentage teachers paid for health insurance. In response, the administration delivered an ultimatum and 120 non-tenured teacher layoff notices—at a time when the town is poised to save millions and fill a new position—that of an assistant superintendent—with a six-figure salary.
Close to 200 teachers turned out for a Board of Education meeting to show their disappointment with the administration’s response and to demonstrate support for one another, their students, and their schools.
All give, no get
With their town facing a budget deficit, like cities and towns throughout the state, Westport teachers agreed to help the town cut costs by joining the state health insurance plan. This would save the town as much as $2 million to $3 million over the next year.
Westport teachers, however, pay a higher share of their healthcare premiums than most other educators—21%—and like their colleagues throughout the state, they have been hit with a state-imposed payroll tax increase that has further cut into their take-home pay.
In light of these concessions, Westport’s teachers requested a modest reduction in their healthcare premium costs—3% for a single year—in exchange for the millions in savings achieved by joining the state health plan.
The superintendent’s response was to order the building administrators to issue layoff notices to 120 non-tenured teachers at 7:45 am on Friday April 20. The WEA leadership received notice of the layoffs the night before, at 8:00 p.m.
WEA members did not take the threat lying down.
The hits keep coming
At the April 23 Board of Education hearing, Bedford Middle School teacher April Harvey, who is WEA’s secretary, explained it this way. “During my tenure in Westport, I have worked through two contracts where teachers were frozen on steps for salary advancement. We were told that times were tough and teachers needed to help out. During that time, many teachers, including me, were pursuing graduate degrees, which Connecticut teachers must earn to maintain their teaching certification—with most of the cost coming out of our own pockets. In addition, Westport teachers have contributed an increased percentage each year to the premium cost share for our insurance. Again, the economy turned, and we were asked to do our part. Our part included rates higher than many surrounding towns.”
Harvey added, “After all the step freezes, premium cost-share increases, and mandatory retirement contribution increases, we’ve never recovered from those hits. Westport teachers are simply looking for a fair premium share for our insurance. And the percent we’d be paying is still higher than that of almost all the towns participating in the State Partnership Plan. However, the response from the Board was coercive, with the intent of dividing us by threatening the jobs of all 120 of this district’s newest teachers.
“We’ve made concessions year after year. And now we want to know when we will see some relief. We are a strong faculty with expertise in child development, sound educational practice, and knowledge in our individual subject areas. That is why you hired each one of us. We are asking to be treated as such, and respected as professionals.”
WEA Co-President John Horrigan underscored the fact that WEA and its members have been extremely cooperative and willing to switch to the state insurance plan to save the town money—just as they had switched in 2010 and 2013 to plans that caused “enormous disruption to our members’ lives” but that saved the district “huge amounts of money.”
“You can imagine our shock when, last Thursday, Superintendent Colleen Palmer emailed all district staff directly, and on Friday, all non-tenured teachers were told by their administrators that they would be laid off. All of these 120 best and brightest had to put on a happy face all day Friday, despite this devastating news.”
One of those non-tenured teachers, high school English teacher Brendan Giolitto, came out to the meeting with his friend and tenured colleague Eric Mongirdas.
“I understand the budget situation, but teachers were not put first in this process and were not given a fair say,” Giolitto said. “That’s why I’m here.”
Mongirdas, who teaches history at the high school, agreed. “We will lose excellent teachers like Brendan if we don’t come out here in solidarity with them. Teaching is a great profession, and we all go into it because we love kids. But we have to make sure we’re treated fairly.”
High school social studies teacher John Bengston is another educator whose job is on the line. Though he’s worried about his future and his students, he is heartened by his local Association’s swift and strong response to the situation.
“WEA is out here speaking on our behalf, working for a better school climate, representing teachers and our students so that all sides are winners.”
Veteran seventh-grade English language arts teacher Paul Ferrante also came out with his wife, Maria, to show their support for their colleagues.
“I know what it’s like to be an untenured teacher, the uncertainty of it, because we’ve all been in their shoes. My wife and I are here to stand with them, and with all our teachers.”
Not too late to make things right
Despite a generally positive, longstanding relationship with the Board, Horrigan said, the WEA is now being subject to “heavy-handed attempts to bully us into an agreement.”
He added, however, that Westport teachers are still willing to enter the State Partnership Plan. “It is our strongest desire to enter into an agreement with the Board that is fair for everyone.”
WEA Co-president Karen DeFelice agreed.
“I can tell you that we are proactive and thoughtful, and our goal is to address issues with the intention of working cooperatively toward a result that is reasonable and fair for all parties. The WEA is no stranger to Board requests for insurance changes. We know what it means to do our part to realize an agreement that has true benefits for all parties. The last time the Board changed from a PPO to a high-deductible health plan, we worked as partners. They offered a reasonable decrease in cost share, and we readily agreed without drama or fuss. And as we entered into informal discussions about the state plan, WEA worked tirelessly to understand all that is involved and took this proposal very seriously. This shift could very well be the right thing if the terms are fair for everyone. We want to be partners, but the tactics of ‘last best offers,’ ultimatums, and surprise layoff notices are just too much. Savings could and should be realized all around, but in a way that is equitable.”
DeFelice concluded, “Westport Education Association members want to be part of the solution, but they hold steadfast against any unfair practices that affect the classroom and jeopardize students’ futures and teachers’ livelihoods. The entire Westport community is trusting the town’s elected officials to do the right thing. Time is critical, and we urge leaders to support our teachers.”