Teachers’ contract dominates school board candidates forum



BETH YOUNG PHOTO | Mattituck school board candidates Jerry Diffley, Joan Ferris, Charlie Anderson and Laura Jens-Smith during Wednesday's PTSA forum.

One thought seemed to be on the minds of most of those who questioned the four Mattituck-Cutchogue School Board candidates Wednesday night:

What would they do to change the teachers’ contract to be renegotiated in 2014?

The four are vying for three board seats on next Tuesday’s ballot.

“I would be very concerned about the length of the contract,” former board member Joan Ferris said during the Parent Teachers Student Association-sponsored candidates forum. “In this economic climate, we can’t afford to have a five-year contract.”
Ms. Ferris said that the district also needs to ask all teachers to contribute more toward their health insurance.

“It can’t be just the new employees,” she said. “The teachers union will cut off the arms and legs of the newly hired to protect their own.”

Jerry Diffley, the current board president, said that the district has a five year contract because teachers agreed several years ago to reopen negotiations and give back half of their projected salary increases. He said that he would like to renegotiate step increases, salary increases teachers receive based on years of service and additional graduate credits earned, in addition to their annual increases.

In the last contract the board successfully negotiated teacher contributions to their health insurance premiums as a percentage of the cost, he said. That allows the district to increase employee contributions as premium rates increase.

Laura Jens-Smith, a nurse who has two children in the district, said that she would like to tackle the pension plan, but that without New York State revamping its pension system, there is not much that can be done to change things on the local level.

It’s the board’s job to lobby at the state level,” she said.

She would also like to reexamine the steps program and keep teachers from being paid extra for serving on lunch duty and other extra jobs.

Current board vice president Charlie Anderson said that he would like to negotiate face-to-face with union members.

“Last time, we kicked the lawyers out,” he said.” It got ridiculous.”

He added that teachers need to be more realistic about their health insurance contributions.

“What I pay where I work is more than teachers pay,” he said. “I’m not here to bash teachers, but we have to keep asking.”

Despite a light attendance, the night wasn’t without fireworks. MaryAnn Fleischman, who this spring organized a group called The Educated Taxpayers, stormed out of the meeting after learning that one of her questions would not be asked, saying under her breath that she couldn’t believe this was happening in America.

Moderator Joe Pufahl said that the question was a personal attack aimed at one of the candidates, which he said was not in keeping with the ethics of the discussion.

Mr. Pufahl asked the candidates to describe their three most important issues.

Mr. Anderson said his main focus is taxpayers, who are hurting, and he wants the state to provide more funding to cover state mandates. He added thathe wants to make sure that students who don’t have special needs or aren’t gifted and talented get more out of their educational experience.

“Kids in the middle get lost in Mattituck,” he said.

Ms. Jens-Smith wants to focus on the curriculum, on communication between the school and the community and on financial issues.

“To communicate more clearly is just having a dialogue that’s more direct,” she said, adding that she believes board members have an obligation to educate residents on the issues facing the district, perhaps through frequent updates to the school website.

Mr. Diffley said that he plans to focus on a number of statewide issues, including unfunded mandates, the proposed 2 percent tax levy cap and revisions to the state pension system.

Ms. Ferris said her focus would be on communication, curriculum and values.

“We all have to continue to work towards what’s best for the kids,” she said.

The budget vote and school board election will be held next Tuesday, May 17, from 3 to 9 p.m. in the Mattituck High School gymnasium.