The opening of the $133 million agricultural and technical high school in Danvers turned ugly when support staff reported to work amid news of an unexpected pay freeze, and they remain embroiled with the administration over the status of their union contract.
“The administration is not recognizing the contract,” said Erin DeRenzis, assistant general counsel for AFSCME Council 93, the union representing about 45 receptionists, secretaries, custodians, cafeteria workers, and other staff members at the Essex North Shore Agricultural & Technical School on Route 62, site of the former Essex Agricultural & Technical High School.
The new school was formed by a merger of Essex Agricultural, North Shore Regional Vocational School in Middleton, and the vocational technical programs at Peabody Veterans Memorial High School. About 15 support staff from North Shore Regional joined 28 Essex Agricultural workers in the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union on May 27, DeRenzis said.
The union on July 8 filed charges of unfair labor practices against the newly formed school district — which took over on July 1 — with the state Department of Labor Relations after support staff received an e-mail from the administration changing their summer hours and cutting their lunch break from one hour to a half-hour, among other claims, according to the complaint.
“The administration made unilateral changes to the terms of the contract,” said DeRenzis.
In a July 11 letter mailed to staffers’ homes, Essex North Shore superintendent-director Daniel O’Connell said any contracts that existed had expired on June 30 because “the District that previously employed [Essex Aggie] no longer exists as of June 30, 2014.”
All support staff would receive the same pay for the 2014-15 school year as last year until a new contract was negotiated, O’Connell said in the letter.
“The most compelling issue is that the administration made it clear that it will not honor the issue of salary increases . . . the step increases they were bound for under their contract with the former Essex Aggie,” said DeRenzis.
The merger was several years in the making as officials from various communities worked with then-state senator Fred Berry and state Senator Thomas McGee to iron out complicated details, including protecting the rights of existing employees.
“There were many meetings with so many people at the table, and members of the new school district were intimately involved,” McGee said last week.
McGee had sent an Aug. 27 letter in support of the union to O’Connell, who was superintendent-director of North Shore Regional High School during much of the merger talks.
“We felt confident throughout the process,” McGee said, “that the legislation protected employees’ rights they had gained through the good-faith collective bargaining process, and I would be surprised to learn that the new administration was unaware of that protection — this wasn’t controversial.” McGee represents Lynn, Lynnfield, Marblehead, Nahant, Saugus, and Swampscott.
“The language is crystal clear,” said Jim Durkin, director of legislation, political action, and communication for AFSCME Council 93. “The School Committee and the administration [of the new district] own this contract.”
Attorney Joshua Coleman of Collins, Loughran & Peloquin, the Norwood law firm representing the school district, declined to answer specific questions regarding the charges before the Department of Labor Relations .
“The School District is disappointed that the union has violated its obligation to bargain in good faith by discussing collective bargaining issues with the media,” Coleman said in a prepared statement. “The district is bargaining in good faith with the union regarding all mandatory subjects of bargaining, and collective bargaining, by state law, is conducted in executive session. As a result, the district is constrained by law from discussing bargaining positions in the media, including pending litigation related to contract negotiations. The district takes its bargaining obligations seriously, even if others do not.”
Durkin countered: “The issues we discussed are not related to collective bargaining for a successor agreement to the current contract, which we maintain is still in effect under state law. Our comments were based exclusively on the charges that the union filed with the state’s Department of Labor Relations regarding the current administration’s failure to honor this contract.”
Carol Markland, the union representative for the Essex North Shore support staff, approached the administration in December and again this past spring ahead of the existing contract’s June 30 expiration date to begin negotiations on a new contract, but the administration declined to meet, said DeRenzis.
After an unsuccessful mediation meeting on Aug. 27, a Department of Labor Relations investigator was assigned for a hearing that began Sept. 3 and will continue on Sept. 26, said Ann Dufresne, a spokeswoman for the state agency. Should the parties be unable to reach an agreement then, the department will either dismiss the complaint or pursue charges against the school district, she said.
Meanwhile, the American Federation of Teachers, which will represent all teachers at Essex North Shore as a result of the merger, is now beginning contract negotiations, according to Coleman, the school district’s lawyer.
About 1,150 students from 17 area communities are attending the new school.
Bella Travaglini can be reached at bellatrav@gmail.-com.