Benefits change ruffles teachers’ relationship with town

Can the relationship between the town and its educators be mended?

That remains to be seen after Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting where more than a dozen Trumbull teachers spoke during a public comment period to voice their dissatisfaction with the first selectman’s 2016-17 proposed budget that claims savings of $3 million by making a change to the health care plan for all the employees under the Board of Education requiring them to participate in the Connecticut Partnership Plan 2.0.

Trumbull Education Association co-presidents Jane Kluspes and Tammy Baillargeon and Trumbull Administrators President Jacqueline Norcel spoke first during the public comment period at the Feb. 16 meeting.

“It is with sadness that we come to address you this evening,” Kluspes told the board. “One and two years ago our members entered into good faith negotiations with the Board of Education. The end result was an agreement that binds both parties for a three-year period. Neither side got all that they wanted but both sides respect the process and support the result — that is how it should be.

“On Feb. 2, the Board of Education voted five to two to impose a new health benefit plan on our members,” she continued. “Our members and their representatives were given insufficient time to study this proposal, virtually no opportunity to look at alternatives or determine if this new plan met the criteria set forth in our collective bargaining agreement.”

Kluspes added that the TEA, which represents all Trumbull teachers, is willing to work with the board, as well as other members of Trumbull’s town government, to find cost-effective methods of delivering the terms of the agreement.

“As many of our members are residents and taxpayers of Trumbull, we recognize that encouraging savings whenever possible is in all of our best interests,” she said.

“We teach our students that the end never justifies the means,” she told the board. “The process being employed here is flawed. The board has no right to potentially change the agreement entered into in good faith without first acting in good faith consistent with the agreement.”

Kluspes said she was disgruntled because she wasn’t given the time to study the proposal and insure that any potential issues were ironed out before action was taken.

“This would have been the fair way to proceed,” she said.

As a result of the breakdown, all six of the bargaining units under the Board of Education have already filed a grievance against the change in the health care program, leaving the benefits switch without any support from educators.

“We had no choice but to file grievances to protect the rights of our members,” the TEA co-presidents said in their comments to the board. “All of this could have been avoided had the process been done in the proper manner. We urge the Board of Education to step back and sit down with us, as should have been done in the first place.

“Let’s not create controversy that will only divide and hurt our community,” Kluspes added. “Let’s work together to do the right thing the right way.”

Teachers chime in

Following Baillargeon, Kluspes and Norcel, the board heard from several teachers who echoed the TEA stance that the board voted on a new plan without giving their representatives a chance to review the contract.

“As a teacher in the Trumbull school system, I am disappointed by the lack of concern shown me and my fellow teachers when the Board of Education voted to impose a new health benefit plan on us without the courtesy of giving our representatives the opportunity to make sure this proposal met the criteria of our contract,” one teacher said.

“Every one of us is in favor of saving money,” she added. “Every one of us wants to show respect to the taxpayers of Trumbull by working toward cost-effective ways of implementing our contract. That is just good sense.

“However, we entered into the contract in good faith and we act in good faith every day by respecting the terms and conditions of that contract. I respectfully ask that you do the same. In this case, it means sitting down with our representatives to discuss this proposal. If it meets contract requirements, great, but if there are areas of concern, those should be addressed before we go forward.

“If we act with respect toward one another we can achieve a good result for everyone.”

Board reaction

After the meeting, Board of Education Chairwoman Loretta Chory and Republican board member Paul Lavoie commented that the $3 million in anticipated savings compelled the board to make the decision to change the health care plan.They said they are confident that the new plan will be determined to be the equivalent in serving the needs of the education employees of Trumbull.

First Selectman Tim Herbst delivered the proposed budget on Trumbull Community TV Feb. 10.

He summarized the $163.4-million budget — a proposal that could lower Trumbull’s mill rate from the current 32.87 to 32.77 — as one that would “reduce spending, stabilize our taxes, grow our economy, and continue to improve a nationally recognized school system” and “makes meaningful investments in public safety and also continues to fund and improve vital town services.”

“With all of these investments, overall expenditures have increased a modest 1.87%,” Herbst added. “This will likely lead to a reduction in residential property taxes.”

But a critical component of the budget is the projected $3-million health care savings.

The first selectman stated that “after examining critical data and with careful deliberation, it has been determined that the town of Trumbull and the Trumbull Board of Education will realize savings of $3 million by participating in the state health care system.

“The state health care system has been met with favorable reaction from our collective bargaining units, and the savings realized will allow our town to hold expense levels in check,” Herbst said.

Disruption analysis

However, that “favorable reaction” hasn’t been found among teachers and the TEA, as evidenced by the grievance filed before the Feb. 10 presentation.

The current collective bargaining agreement between the Town of Trumbull and the TEA provides for a change in the insurance plan under Article 7, Section 1.7, which states:

“In the event the Board decides to change carriers during the term of this agreement or to self-insure in whole or in part, the Board will provide the same coverage described above or their equivalent and will give the association notice of its decision at least thirty (30) days in advance of its implementation.”

The TEA has requested that an insurance consultant conduct a disruption analysis to determine if changing the health care system violates the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement.

The board has done its own disruption analysis on the plan, but had yet to share it with the teachers as of press time Wednesday.