Darien school administrators will go without their desired 2 percent salary increase for one year following arbitration between the Board of Education and the Darien Administrators' Association, saving the district between $60,000 and $70,000.
During the presentation of information Jan. 24 and 25, the Board of Education said it could not support an increase in salary after the year-long struggle with improving the special education department, which was found to be in violation of several state laws.
"The board has taken the position in this arbitration that the current members of this bargaining unit should bear the brunt of these events," according to the arbitration decision. "The board repeatedly referred to this bargaining unit as being responsible for the costs, the media coverage, and the community anger and distress."
The Board of Education presented an offer of a one-year contract with a zero percent increase, while the DAA sought a three-year contract. Administrators have received three-year contracts for the last 20 years.
The arbitrators awarded the administrators the three-year contract, but in the first year of the contract there will be no salary increase. A 2 percent increase will be given in the next two years.
The town officials felt a salary increase in the first year was not appropriate.
During the hearing process, Board of Finance Chairman Liz Mao said her board and the Representative Town Meeting likely would vote down the raise.
"I think it's just indefensible while we're in the middle of trying to solve all the problems," Mao said. "Administrators have a chance of getting a better salary once we're through this."
Mao said that she did not feel all of the administrators were responsible for the problems in the special education department.
However, administrators told the arbitrators that attempts were made to alert the top administration that there were problems in the special education department.
Negotiations between the two parties started Sept. 11, at which point the Board of Education told the bargaining unit that it proposed a one-year contract rollover with no wage increase, with which the union did not agree.
"Throughout the negotiation process, the board's position has been that now is not a good time to provide for any salary increases for Darien administrators," said Tom Mooney, a Shipman & Goodwin attorney working with the Board of Education. "Accordingly, it did not make a last best offer on salary for either 2015-2016 or 2016-2017. In so doing, the board was aware that the association's last best offers on salary for these years at 2 percent were somewhat lower than the average settlements for those years, and the Board was aware that ceding the salary issue at 2 percent for those years did not disadvantage the board."
While the board would have preferred a voluntary agreement on a one-year contract, Mooney said, "It was not surprised or displeased with a three-year contract."
"To the extent that the community of Darien mistrusts school administrators and board members, the board and the administrators have set out a number of avenues to repair the relationships and make sure that the educational opportunities offered to children with disabilities are appropriate, legal and procedurally correct," the decision said. "While these remedial steps are being taken, it is in the public interest that resources and attention not be focused on extra collective bargaining."
Since the parents' complaint with the state Department of Education was filed in March 2013, the Board of Education has hired several individuals to help it repair the special education department. Attorney Theresa DeFrancis was hired to rewrite the training manuals and policies for staff. Attorney Sue Gamm was hired to conduct an independent investigation. John Verre was hired as an ombudsman to oversee the department while it is rebuilt during the 2013-14 school year. Attorney Mary Gelfman was hired to act as a facilitator for parents.
In order to rectify the errors within the special education department, the school board is expected to pay upward of $1 million, which Mao and Board of Education Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross have both said.
"In the end, the board is very comfortable with the outcome of the arbitration award," Hagerty-Ross said. "It's time to move forward."
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