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Stage Set for Battle over Binding Arbitration for Teachers

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


A bill by Representative Anastasia Williams would mandate binding arbitration to settle disputes between school departments and teachers unions.

What should be done when a school department and its local teachers’ union fail to reach a contract agreement?

Should the teachers be allowed to strike? Should they reach out to a mediator to settle their differences? Should they take it to the courts for a judge or jury to decide the issues at hand?

One Rhode Island Representative has a different idea: mandatory binding arbitration. And while it’s not a fresh concept, it is one that appears to have new life and, perhaps, its most momentum in recent years and a greater chance of passing both houses of the General Assembly that ever before.

The bill in question, H 5340, is sponsored by Rep. Anastasia Williams, is cosigned by four of her colleagues and will be heard before the House Committee on Labor tonight at 5 p.m.

If passed, the legislation would allow public school teachers the right to binding arbitration on all contractual issues, including those that involve fiscal expenditures, and could alter the way unions and school departments across the state negotiate forever.

Providing Options

Williams, a Democrat from Providence, says her bill is meant to be used as another tool to resolve contract disputes between two parties and isn’t meant to serve anyone but the students in Rhode Island.

“I got to the point where I said enough is enough,” she said. “Binding arbitration in this particular instance doesn’t necessarily mean a completely bad thing. For me, it’s like a tool or a conversation piece, it’s like listen, these two parties need to get together and agree to disagree and come up with a compromise before having to go to an arbitrator. It’s in the best interest of the kids and the teachers and the administration.”

Representative Spencer Dickinson, meanwhile, has cosigned Williams’ bill and says that binding arbitration would put both students and parents at peace because they would no longer have to worry about prolonged contract battles that could lead to strikes and/or extended work stoppages if either side proved unreasonable in negotiations

But Dickinson has also offered an alternative. In a separate piece of legislation, the South Kingstown Representative has offered a new system of judicial resolution that would offer a school committee the chance to take their negotiations to a retired judge if it appears there is a possible strike on the horizon.

Some question if that solution would really be a better alternative.

“Judges are not the answer,” said Lisa Blais, a lobbyist for RITaxpayers. “What track record exists that they are in a better position to determine what communities can afford than locally elected officials who can be held accountable at election time?”

Either way, both Representatives agree something must be done to change the current state of labor relations between school board and unions and, for now, binding arbitration seems to have won the most favor.

“I think we can duck the issue, we can do nothing, and maybe we’ll get away with it for a few years but eventually we’re going to have an irresolvable problem,” Dickinson said. “And I think not accepting the fact or not recognizing the fact that we could have an irresolvable issue is kind of putting your head in the sand.”

A Major Point of Contention

Binding arbitration has a large and vocal opponent base, especially at the state level.

Two years ago, a similar bill that would have mandated the practice narrowly passed the Senate before failing to make it through the House by the end of the legislative year.

Opponents believe it puts too much power in the hands of an unelected official with no responsibility to the taxpayers of a given city or town. In addition, those opposed to the practice feel it undermines the power of those in charge as school expenses, especially in smaller cities and towns, are often the single largest chunk of a municipalities’ budget.

“Binding arbitration would be a fiscal disaster for basically every town in the state,” said House Minority Leader Brian Newberry. “I have some experience with arbitration, I do arbitration in the private sector as a lawyer so I know how arbitration works and I know how arbitrators tend to think.”

Newberry says that, often, arbitrators tend to “split the baby” in negotiations and will try to reach a middle ground between the two sides on an unresolved issues.

Cash-Strapped Districts Oppose Plan

The problem, he explains, is that over time, arbitration “tends to racket up salaries and benefits” and can lead to spiraling costs for a school department that only has so much wiggle room to work within any given budget.

It’s for that reason, not to mention the state’s 30/50 laws that limit the amount by which a city or town can raise property taxes in a given year, that Rhode Island Association of School Committee Executive Director Tim Duffy says the law is opposed by school departments statewide.

“It’s not an option,” Duffy said in response to Williams’ stance on binding arbitration. “Right now we’re in an area where school districts in cities and towns are financially strapped for cash. There are no fewer than 10 communities that have had their bonds lowered in the last few years and they’re in a position where they’re negotiating, they’re not asking, they’re negotiating for lower benefit packages or status quo salary increases.”

Duffy said the bill would lead to arbitrators looking to awards given in other cities and use that as a basis for their ruling, which could put cities and towns at a great disadvantage, and says that the biggest problem is that the arbitration proposed for be on an issue-by-issue basis.

“What we’re concerned of is in that process, the management rights or student rights may be sacrificed and that may be far more dangerous for a district in terms of its ability to either sign teachers, discipline teachers, evaluate teachers than an actual salary increase so it’s not just wages, there’s a whole other facet to this in terms of working conditions that may be in play,” he said.

The End of Elected Officials?

Nearly all opponents to binding arbitration agree that mandating the practice would essentially strip elected officials of their power to oversee their municipalities’ budget.

Pointing to a city like North Smithfield, Newberry said school expenses can account for the majority of a small community’s given budget and putting the final say in the hands of a third party would make it harder for taxpayers to influence those deciding how their money gets spend.

“If the arbitrator is going to decide what those salary and benefits are going to be ultimately, why even have an elected town government?,” he said. “It completely ties the hands of the town council and school committee. If half the budget is being determined by an arbitrator, why not just close down the government and allow an unelected person to run the entire town? I mean, at that point they’re basically doing it aren’t they?”

Pam Gencarella, a member of the Ocean State Tea Party in Action organization agrees.

“With this bill there is no need for a city or town managers or mayors when a decision on 60-80% of the budget is made by someone else,” she said.

Williams disagrees with the assessment and says, if anything, putting binding arbitration in place would give both sides more incentive to reach an agreement on their own.

“It’s an equal tool for both sides, that’s how I’m seeing it,” she said. “Look, it can go either way for either one. Each side is going to be looking for what would be better for them, what’s going to work best for them and that’s understandable but we don’t always get what we want so therefore, it’s a situation where we just have to sit down and compromise.”

Williams says that the issue of labor negotiations comes up year after year and the problem isn’t going to solve itself. For that reason, she supports binding arbitration as an additional tool to ensure students themselves aren’t put in the crosshairs of a union and school department that can’t reach an accord.

“We just can’t keep year after year beating the same dead horse and expect it to resuscitate itself,” she said. “We need to realistically look at the issue and say there’s a solution here. I am open to hear what they have to say but I don’t realistically see it being a disadvantage for anyone, any particular party that’s interested in sitting down and coming to an agreement. As long as they feel like they don’t have to make a decision, then this thing is going to continuously go on and on and on.”

A Trade for Same-Sex Marriage?

While Williams’ bill won’t officially be debated until tonight, there are indications that it has a greater chance of passing now than ever before and that may not be for any reason within the bill’s language and text.

Newberry says he believes binding arbitration will once again pass the Senate, perhaps at a wider margin than it did in 2011, and says that he feels it has stronger in the support in the House now than it did in 2011.

“I think it will be a close vote,” he said.

But there may be another factor that decides its fate.

“My bigger concern is that this might be an issue that the senate might use as leverage for them to pass the same-sex marriage bill,” Newberry said. “If you look at the history between the house and senate leadership the last two or three years, this is one of the most high-profile things where there’s a falling out between the senate president and the speaker.”

Newberry said he could see this legislation passed by a reluctant House in an effort to get same-sex marriage passed by a reluctant Senate.

“If you’re looking for a high-profile issue where the Senate in theory wants it passed and in theory the house does not want it passed, it’s sort of the opposite of the same-sex marriage bill,” he said. “My concern is that there will be some kind of bill where the senate will pass the same-sex marriage bill or the house will in turn will be forced to try to pass this.”

Williams says she’s not even considering the issue as a negotiating tool between the two bodies of the General Assembly.

“I’m not a trade master,” she said. “I do my due diligence with what’s before me and I treat everything respectfully and fairly so I wouldn’t put one against the other or offer a trade of this for that, none of that stuff.”

Dickinson, meanwhile, says he doesn’t doubt that lawmakers will make these kinds of deals but feels same-sex marriage is too high-profile a bill to use as a political bargaining chip.

“Trading happens but I don’t see that any trading is going to happen on same-sex marriage,” he said. “It’s very unusual that you would see something like same-sex marriage traded, it’s in a class by itself as an issue and the idea that someone would hold up binding arbitration to get same-sex marriage, that’s almost bizarre. To me, that’s out there.”

Either way, Newberry says, the bill could go either way.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen but it’s not as simple as counting up to see how many people say they will support it now vs. how many say they will oppose it,” he said.


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