Westbrook teachers have been working with an expired contract since last summer.

The most recent contract between the Westbrook Education Association and the Westbrook School Committee ran out at the end of August. Routine negotiations and mediation have failed. The two parties have turned to a fact-finding panel to resolve their dispute, a step taken by only a small handful of districts each year.

And the fight has become public. More than 100 Westbrook teachers staged a demonstration at a recent school committee meeting, and many have been wearing red to school as part of the national #RedForEd protest.

“Some of this is born out of solidarity with teachers across the United States who have reached a breaking point of being asked to do more with less,” said Jared Ruthman, a history teacher at Westbrook High School and president of the Westbrook Education Association.

Because the negotiations are confidential, officials on both sides cannot explain their differences in detail. But they have said the teachers union wants to add new language to the contract that is opposed by the superintendent and the school committee.

“We strongly feel it should not be in the contract,” said Jim Violette, school committee chairman. “They strongly feel it should be. That’s basically the crossroads we’re at now. I really can’t get specific into the language.”

Ruthman said the financial components of the next contract – salaries and benefits – are decided. Instead, he suggested the discussion is about “working conditions,” such as the amount of prep time for teachers. The association does not bear ill will toward the school committee, he said, but its members feel like district officials are not listening to their concerns.

“This is not about money,” Ruthman said. “What this really is about is ensuring the teachers get the resources they need to create the best possible learning environment.”

Nearly 500 employees work in Westbrook schools. The teachers’ contract covers 259 people, and its membership is 197. The previous contract expired Aug. 31.

Negotiations on a new contract began in spring 2017. When they could not agree, the parties turned to the process outlined by the Maine State Labor Board. The association filed for mediation in the fall, and then for fact-finding in early winter. The panel is expected to issue its findings this summer. If the association and the district still cannot come to a resolution, the next step is arbitration. The contract expired more than 250 days ago, and that timeline could push the delay over a year.

‘A RARE SITUATION’

The school budget that will go to voters on June 12 does include a more than $900,000 increase to salaries and benefits related to all district employees. Violette said that number was estimated in part based on the negotiations so far, but he would not say whether any salary increases in the next contract would be retroactive to September.

“We totally respect all of the employees, and they do a great job with our children,” Violette said. “It’s just language, and again, we’ve just got to work out these differences.”

Giovanna Bechard, communications director for the Maine Education Association, said four or five districts every year wind up before a fact-finding panel during negotiations. But Westbrook is one of only two districts in the state right now with employees who have gone so long over the end of their contract. The other is School Administrative District 46, which serves several towns in Penobscot County.

“What’s happening in Westbrook is a more rare situation as far as how long this has gone on,” Bechard said.

‘A CRISIS OF MORALE’

The Westbrook Education Association posted a plea on its Facebook page on April 30 for teachers to wear red to school later that week, mimicking protests in Arizona and other states. Since then, the association has been sharing photos of red-clad teachers in the schools with the hashtag #RedForEd. In some pictures, teachers are wearing buttons that say “We teach, we care, be fair #nocontract.” They organized a protest at the Westbrook School Committee meeting last Wednesday, when more than 100 teachers packed the meeting room and held signs saying “Respect” and other messages.

The contract was not on the agenda for discussion, but Ruthman made a brief statement at the beginning of the meeting. The teachers then filed out of the room, the sound of their clapping carrying from the hallway.

“I think it’s time for you to acknowledge that there’s a crisis of morale in this district,” Ruthman told the committee members.

Ruthman said the district has a problem with teacher turnover, saying the district hires more than 18 new people every year. Superintendent Peter Lancia later said that number includes teachers who fill new positions or replace people who are retiring, and he does not consider Westbrook’s turnover rate to be higher than other districts.

“As I go around the district, there are people working really hard and really positively and putting kids at the center,” Lancia said. “Are there some things the schools could improve upon? Absolutely. I was really surprised at the whole sense of morale being at a crisis level.”

Ruthman said teachers are not drawing students into conversations about the contract negotiations. He anticipated more action in the future, but said nothing has been decided or organized yet.

“It’s not over,” he said.

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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