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In Lawrence, 7 years and counting with no new teacher contract

In July 2017 a state fact-finder issued non-binding recommendations for a nine-year deal running through the 2019-20 school year.

Teachers in the Lawrence school district, including those

Teachers in the Lawrence school district, including those at Lawrence High School, seen here on Jan. 16, 2013, have been working without a contract. Photo Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

Teachers in the Lawrence school system are calling on district officials to resolve a contract-negotiation impasse that is about to enter its eighth year.

“All we’re looking for is a fair agreement,” said Lori Skonberg, president of the Lawrence Teachers’ Association, which has nearly 270 members. “That’s been our motto for seven years. All we want is a fair agreement for the teachers and students of Lawrence.”

According to New York State United Teachers, the statewide federation of local unions, educators in Lawrence have now been working under an expired agreement longer than any other teacher bargaining unit in the state.

The union and its members, along with a representative of NYSUT and the national American Federation of Teachers, plan to press their case before the board of education at its meeting Thursday night, Skonberg said.

Board President Murray Forman said that there were “legitimate differences in the negotiating positions between the district and the teachers.”

But some headway has been made, he said. “There’s some intense negotiations that took place over the last six months, during which I truly believe most of the gaps were bridged.”

There are “several problematic issues with the existing contract, and we are in good faith negotiating through them,” Forman said. “It’s just a matter of teachers saying yes.”

District Superintendent Ann Pedersen did not respond to a request for comment.

The district’s contract with the union expired in June 2011, according to a report filed with the state Public Employment Relations Board. After years of failing to reach an agreement, the union in December 2013 filed a declaration of impasse with PERB, which then appointed a meditator, according to the report. Both parties still could not come to terms.

In July 2017 a fact-finder with the state board presented both parties with nonbinding recommendations, including a nine-year deal running through 2019-20. Her proposal included a 4.5 percent wage increase for the 2016-17 school year, and 1.25 percent for each of the subsequent years, but no increases for the years before that.

Negotiations have recently picked up, which Skonberg attributes to the district’s new superintendent, Pedersen, who began July 1 of last year.

The union’s demands include a raise, and for flexibility in taking religious holidays off, she said.

The median teacher salary in the district was $118,066 as of the 2016-17 school year, according to the most recent data from SeeThroughNY, a database of state and local salaries maintained by the Empire Center.

Mary Vachris, who teaches high school English, said it’s “disheartening” not having a contract for so long and added that she feels “undervalued.”

“I’m highly upset about it,” said Vachris, who has taught in the district since 2000 and is retiring at the end of this school year. “I would not be retiring if I thought the district had any interest in keeping quality teachers.”

Forman said it was “a little inappropriate to negotiate a contract in the press,” but added that the district would “love to have an agreement.”

He noted that teacher salaries “represents the single largest expense in the district.”

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