ConVal negotiation legal fees mount

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Tuesday, March 13, 2018 8:3AM

ConVal spent more than $30,000 on a yearlong negotiations process with union members that took place over the course of last year.

A document provided to the Ledger-Transcript by members of the union and verified by Superintendent Kimberly Saunders map out each of the district’s attorney charges, which start accruing on Feb. 3, 2017 and continue through Dec. 31, 2017. The charges vary in amount from $20.50 for 10 minutes of the attorney’s time to $1,845 for 9 hours of their time. The total figure hovers around $30,000, which doesn’t include expenses it split with the union to cover mediation and a third-party factfinder.

A school board negotiating team and members of the union met 12 times for two-hour periods, but were unable to reach a conclusion at the end of the process. factfinder reviewed materials and made recommendations based off of evidence presented from both sides.

The factfinder’s report includes a minimum of a 2 percent raise for teachers and directs the district to establish an outstanding performance award pool consisting of $180,000 to be dolled out by the superintendent, among other things. The report covers 25 points in total.

The district estimates the recommendations cost about $1.685 million to implement. 

The ConVal Education Association, which represents all professional staff whose positions require certification by the state’s Department of Education, has voted in favor of accepting the factfinding report, while the school board voted against it.

It’s now up to taxpayers to decide if the report will be implemented or not.

The item will appear as Article 3 on the ballot in March. A “yes” vote would accept the report, which would give teachers a raise, while a “no” vote would strike it down, leaving teachers without a raise.

School board members argue the two parties could have another swing at the process if taxpayers vote “no” on Article 3, but “yes” on Article 4, which would allow the district to call an additional meeting with the union to hash out an agreement. 

But members of the union argue the district has already dumped a significant amount of resources into the negotiations process, pointing to the district’s mounting legal fees as evidence. 

Superintendent Kimberly Saunders said that the union comes equipped with an attorney and that it “would be ill-advised for the board to forgo legal representation.”

Saunders said a dollar figure for the amount the district typically spends on the negotiations process would be difficult to dredge up because the district tallies all legal expenses in the same line item. Saunders said a way to put the number into perspective is the total amount that the district spends on employee contracts, which comes in at around $25 million dollars every year. 

Lori Groleau, CVEA co-chair, and Patrick Cogan, CVEA co-president, recently met with the Ledger-Transcript to discuss the sum that the district spent on legal fees throughout the yearlong process.

Cogan said the money the district spent is taxpayer dollars. He said members of the CVEA were surprised when they saw how much money the district spent on attorney fees.

“It’s not a small chunk of change,” Cogan said.

He said that money could have been directed toward a teacher salary, or a paraprofessionals salary and benefits lumped together.

The union also hires an attorney to assist them throughout the negotiations process. Their attorney is paid through membership dues, Groleau said. She said a lot of the union’s members also poured a significant amount of volunteer hours into the process.

“They hired a factfinder so to not use the final result to us it’s kind of baffling,” Groleau said.

Vice-chair of the school board Rich Cahoon said during a recent select board meeting in Antrim that the last time employee negotiations appeared on the ballot was in 2016. He said that was a two-year contract that cost the district $820,000. Voters approved it.

Cahoon told select board members that the school board unanimously voted against the factfinder’s report this year. 

“We had 11 members present that day, it was 11 to zero against accepting the factfinder’s report,” Cahoon said. “It’s 11 people with very different political views, and ideologies, and experiences, but the number was just too high.”

Taxpayers within the ConVal school district will vote on the matter today.