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Bedford Central Declares Impasse Over Teachers' Union Contract Talks

The Bedford Central school board, pictured a recent meeting
The Bedford Central school board, pictured a recent meeting Photo Credit: Tom Auchterlonie

BEDFORD, N.Y. -- The Bedford Central School District announced that its board and teachers' union are at an impasse over talks for a new contract, citing unsuccessful negotiations to date.

Calling both parties "far apart in their positions," the district adds that talks will be picked up by the state's Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), which in turn will assign a mediator to help create a new agreement.

A full copy of the district's full statement can be read here.

The union, known as the Bedford Teachers Association (BTA), is coming off of a three-year contract that expires on Thursday, June 30. The date is also the end of the district's 2015-16 fiscal year.

Under state law, terms of the expired contract must remain in place until a new deal is reached, which means that the school board is barred from making unilateral changes. This includes continued raises in the longevity based portions of teachers' wages, which are called "steps" and are given in addition to basic salaries.

The escalation in steps is a point of contention for the school board, which cites a dispute with the BTA as the cause behind talks stalling.

"The reason why it is difficult to negotiate a contract with BTA is that the union contract provides for automatic salary increases that exceed the rate of inflation, and exceed the maximum tax levy increase under the New York tax cap law. Like almost all teachers union contracts in New York State, our contract with BTA contains a salary schedule that links salaries to seniority."

Because of steps, teachers who have between four and 17 years of service receive an average annual salary increase of four percent, the district notes.

One notable exception to the step system is in the current contract, which requires employees hired after July 1, 2013 to abide by a lower total wage-hike threshold of roughly two percent, which is in lieu of the traditional model.

The board's desire to curb wage increases comes as the district grapples with the effects of staying under the state-mandated tax cap, which limits annual increases in total tax revenue for the budget. Voters rejected an attempt in May to override the cap as part of the budget, which would have results in a 3.82-percent levy hike. The rejection was because supporters could not muster a 60-percent supermajority needed for an override; a simple majority of roughly 58 percent was secured.

A revised budget, which stayed under the cap and had a 1.31-percent levy increase, was approved by the voters on June 21.

"This system of automatic salary increases worked satisfactorily when the rate of inflation was close to or above the automatic increases in the contract," the district's statement says. "But year after year of automatic increases in excess of inflation have taken their toll, causing much of the District’s current fiscal predicament."

The district sought to override the cap in order to fill a roughly $8.8 million fiscal shortfall, which was brought about by large cost overruns in health insurance and special education. Both budget versions included sizable cost cuts, with the approved second version resulting in roughly 52 positions being eliminated.

Salaries and benefits for employees make up roughly 78 percent of Bedford Central's budgetary costs, according to a recent presentation from the district. This figure includes employees covered by the BTA, two other unions and non-union staff.

For a new contrast, the district states that it has sought to reduce the escalation of automatic step increases. Specifically, the district is seeking to have the BTA limit its increases to either the tax cap or to the rate of inflation.

Tying BTA wages to the tax cap has been pushed for by several local fiscal hawks, such as a group of members on the district's Budgetary Advisory Committee.

For health insurance, the district has sought to get the BTA's approval for withdrawing from the current self-insured plan and switching to a Blue Cross/Blue Shield plan used by other districts - the plan's cost volatility has been a concern raised by officials - as well as increasing the co-pay for doctor visits from $20 to $40. The district has also sought to extend an existing $400 deductible to in-network healthcare.

The district also sternly criticized the BTA, arguing that it has sought wage increases beyond what the current contract allows.

"They have stated that they will refuse to agree to any contract that ends up costing the District less money than the contract we have now. They said they would be willing to agree to short-term savings, but only if those savings are more than outweighed by increased costs in future years. Such a deal would make it even harder for us to balance our budgets in the future."

Michael Groarke, the BTA president, is away on vacation. However, BTA Executive Vice President Jennifer Tully offered a rebuttal on the union's behalf.

Tully said that she appreciated the district needing to declare an impasse. However, she blasted the board's decision to air out negotiation details

"We're disappointed that the board, in doing so, chose to publicize and editorialize the details of the negotiation."

Tully argued that the board's proposals would be "bad for the educator" and the students, arguing that they would hurt with recruitment and retention of teachers. She also noted the BTA has already made "many concessions," such as the compensation overhaul in the current deal.

Tully notes that what the BTA is seeking something that is based on economic conditions and is comparable to what counterparts across the county are getting.

On the budgetary side, Tully also noted the BTA's backing for a successful lobbying effort to restore cuts to state aid, which took effect this spring.

With regards to the tax cap, Tully said that it "continues to fail," and either should be repealed or "sensibly amended."

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