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School counsel raises issues with tri-board ‘united front’

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AYER — Town officials have pledged to hold a “united front” in upcoming union contract negotiations, but legal counsel for the schools is now questioning the legality of that arrangement.

The issue was raised at a July 24 tri-board meeting between the School Committee, Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee.

Central to the issue is a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that creates a joint negotiating team for contract deliberations. The team would include members of the three boards. Negotiations will commence with five unions in the coming calendar year, and the team arrangement has been billed by the tri-board as a way to get everyone on the same page.

School Committee Chairman Daniel Sallet said concerns have been raised on his board that the agreement may encroach on its statutory authority to negotiate teacher contracts.

Similar issues were raised by interim Superintendent of Schools George Frost, who cited advice from the district’s legal counsel.

“He has very serious concerns about the legality of the team being the primary negotiating team for a school-side contract,” he said.

The counsel advised that a joint negotiating team isn’t a widely accepted method, said Frost, and it could lead to an unfair-labor-practice complaint from the teacher’s union.

“He said we could potentially be spending time at the labor relations board as well as the negotiating table,” said Frost.

Instead, Frost recommended the Board of Selectmen pursue its prerogative under statute to appoint one designee, who would have voting rights, to sit in on all School Committee negotiations.

That position wasn’t immediately accepted by the board.

The purpose of the agreement is better communication, said Selectman Cornelius “Connie” Sullivan, not to usurp anyone’s authority. He said the problems cited shouldn’t be an issue within the stated intent of the MOU.

“Ultimately, the buck stops at the School Committee,” he said. “Hopefully, the School Committee can be influenced by the tri-board’s position, (but) the tri-board sends those members into negotiations with clear parameters that are set by the tri-board and, ultimately, by the School Committee.”

Selectman Frank Maxant was bluntly critical of the rationale offered against joint negotiations. Heath-care costs — which figure to loom large in negotiations — are a crisis across the state, he said, and the town needs to push for the best possible approach.

“I am contemptuous with any argument that begins with, ‘Oh, that isn’t the way it was done before,'” he said. “The approach to take now is, ‘How can we be most effective?”

The School Committee wants to collaborate, said Frost, but also stay within the rules.

“I would feel better taking the advice of counsel when counsel is clearly advising caution,” he said.

In an effort to bridge those concerns, town administrator Shaun Suhoski said language was added to the draft MOU that specifies the School Committee will not lose any of its current authority through the agreement.

Sallet ended the discussion by suggesting he and Suhoski draw up a clear “concept of operation” for the negotiating group that would be based on the evening’s discussion. While that agreement would be reviewed by lawyers from both sides, Sallet said the everyone’s in agreement on the concept.

“I don’t want to make this a legality issue,” he said. “I think the spirit of what we’re trying to do is there.”

In addition to the teachers’ union, negotiations are expected to commence shortly with representatives from the firefighters’, public works’, police superior officers’ and patrolmen’s unions.

The tri-board closed by going into executive session to discuss strategy for contract negotiations.

The tri-board’s next scheduled meeting is Oct. 17.