The Town Council on Nov. 14 approved the town's single largest expenditure -- the teachers' union contract -- which will cost more than $150 million over the next three years, or roughly 45 percent of the town's total budget each year.
Although the contract was approved, some council members spoke against the more than 8.5 percent average pay raise for teachers in the union over the course of three years, especially in the face of a potentially poor economic climate going forward.
"(The) No. 1 consideration in arbitration is the town's ability to pay," said Councilman Robert Hamill. "That's ridiculous, but that's the law. If you take the risk of arbitration, you take the risk of litigating and coming out worse. I'm going to vote for it because I'm a pragmatist."
A primary point of discussion was the step process of pay raises used in collectively bargained agreements. This contract includes 17 steps in the career of a teacher, each with its own level of pay, and also accounts for advanced degrees. These steps range in pay raises from 3 to 9 percent per step.
Under the previous contract, all teachers moved up one step each of the three years, so long as they were employed by the schools. Under the current contract, teachers move up only two steps over the three years.
All teachers also received a 1.1 percent increase across the board in the second and third year of the contract. The total average salary increase for teachers is 8.6 percent over three years.
The contract also changes the nature of health care coverage for teachers, a move that other town agencies have also made in recent contracts.
The new health care plan has high deductibles, the cost of which management splits with labor.
The teachers would also take on incrementally more of the cost of the premiums through the years, from 16 percent in the school year ending in 2014, to 17 percent in 2015, to 18 percent in 2016.
Members of the Board of Education's negotiating team universally praised the contract, pointing out that salary increases were lower than in previous years and negotiations were done within the framework of the step system.
"We feel as if this is a very fair contract," said new BOE Chairman Alison Bedula, who served on the negotiating team. "We're restricted by the environment we're negotiating in. ... I don't think there's anything I can say to you to make you feel better except that we feel this is truly the best contract we can bring to you."
Some on the Town Council were pleased by the terms.
"I believe in my heart it's the best they could get. I think we should approve it. I think our teachers do an outstanding job," council member Christine Hussey said.
Others had reservations about the cost. Williams saw the obligations as too onerous in what he views as a potentially poor economic climate in the future.
"I know that the negotiating team at the Board of Ed did a good job relative to minimizing increases," he said. "(The increases in the contract are) very concerning and alarming to me, especially because we don't know what the economy and taxes are going to bring in the next 60 days, with the fiscal cliff. We're looking at a huge recession or tax hikes on those making over $250,000 per year, which last time I checked, was mostly everyone in the town of New Canaan," he said.
Councilman Joe Paladino expressed his concerns about pay raises in an uncertain economy.
"I have four uncles, three aunts and one wife, and they're all teachers," he said. Paladino said he understood that with the step process there was little management could do about the raises, but that he could not vote in favor of the contract.
"What I can't get my arms around is that this isn't where the country and economy were in 2010. Everyone can agree it's different today, and it's going to be more challenging in 2013-16," he said. "I wish we had some protection for our taxpayers, if (the economy) gets really bad. ... As much as what we have here is reasonable, I'm concerned about where we'll be a couple years from now."
Teachers' union leader Vivian Birdsall explained that the steps can be altered or changed to make salaries more competitive at different times in teachers' careers.
"Collapsing the steps would put more of us on the top step," she said. "Last contract, our Step 1 wasn't competitive. People were going into other districts. Thirty-five percent of our teachers are at top step. So you can play with those steps a little bit. If you want to change a 10 percent (increase), you can put in another step."
"You've created steps to smooth it," Town Council Chairman Mark DeWaele said. "We have to adjust these steps to make certain times more competitive. It's a little misleading. We're not getting a 10 percent increase district-wide, but rather at competitive times."
After the meeting, Hamill said he felt that the explanation of the step process differed when it was explained by the Board of Education and by the union.
"The two seemed to contradict each other, and what the chairman (Bedula) was trying to say was that we never opened (the steps) as an item, we granted the step process as fact. Presumably, if we'd opened that, the union pulls something else off the table. To say that it was not negotiable is not true. Upon further examination, everything is negotiable, and we chose a tactic to not dig into steps, and maybe we should have, and maybe we will in three years."
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