Council Ratification Foes Layer on Technical Objections

Attendees at General Assembly committee hearings may wonder what they accomplish.  Prior to testimony concerning one bill at Tuesday night’s House Committee on Labor hearing, Chairwoman Anastasia Williams (D, Providence) announced the likely votes of the committee members by way of requesting that speakers keep their comments brief.  If testimony has no chance of changing outcomes, why bother?

By the time the Executive Director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, Tim Duffy, testified against a bill that would give town/city councils authority to ratify school department contracts (H7757), State House room 135 had mostly cleared.  But Mr. Duffy’s point found a wider audience — and distorting overstatement — when Jennifer Jordan reported on page 3 of the next day’s Providence Journal (emphasis added):

The bill would repeal the Caruolo Act, a 1995 law that allows school districts to sue their home communities for more money. Then it would require all municipalities to empower city and town councils to sign off on all school-related contracts, “forcing the two sides to work together,” [Rep. Patricia] Morgan [R, Coventry, Warwick, West Warwick] said, and ameliorating the adversarial relationship that has sprung up. But not everyone thinks that is the way to go. Critics and supporters of the Caruolo Act testified before the House Labor Committee Tuesday evening.

Jordan’s paraphrase of the bill’s effect is incorrect, but it does follow from Duffy’s testimony, during which he stated that the bill is “not exclusive to collective bargaining; it says ‘all contracts.'”  Duffy then gave the example of a special needs student requiring “a special ed consulting fee” or a contracting fee “with an outside vendor.”  Such a requirement, he said, would be “crazy.” “Every instance in which a contract would need to be ratified would then have to go to a town council for ratification.”

The precise language that Morgan’s bill would place in the law gives school committee’s the authority:

To enter into contracts; provided, however, that no collective bargaining agreement between the city or town and any labor organization, or any employment contract with any individual employed by a school department, shall become effective unless and until ratified by the city or town council.

The legislation only covers “employment contracts.”  Upon inquiry, Duffy narrowed his argument to the example of “a mentoring coach” hired for assistance with “teacher assessment to principals.”

Representative Morgan doesn’t see that as an error, but as the purpose of the bill.  “It’s about letting the town council know ahead of time that the spending is occurring,” she told the Current.  The law would apply only to employees, just as the law treats employees differently from independent “1099” contractors in the private sector.

Following Duffy, Dan Beardsley, executive director of the RI League of Cities and Towns, offered another technical criticism of the legislation:

The bill doesn’t do what Representative Morgan believes it does. … If the bill stated that no collective bargaining agreement between the school district and any labor organization, or the school committee and any labor organization [it would].  It doesn’t say that; it says, “between the city or town and any labor organization.”  Well, the city or town only negotiates with its police, fire, and municipal employees, and in some cities or town, the non-certified school personnel.

In correspondence with the Current, Beardsley confirmed that he does not believe that school committees fall under the umbrella of “city or town.”  “I think the language is quite clear and unambiguous,” he said.  The specific statutes that he cited, 28-9.3-1 and 28-9.3-4, give school committees the “the obligation of the school committee to meet and confer in good faith” with labor unions.  They do not, however, describe school committees as departments independent of the city or town.  If that were the case, other laws, such as the one placing a cap on local tax levy increases, would not apply to school departments, either.  In that case, the law refers repeatedly to “city or town,” yet it is widely understood that school budgets are not outside of limit.

Morgan’s legislation would create situations in which the school committee negotiated a contract that the town council refused to accept, but that is a matter of fairness, not a problem, according to Morgan.  “The union goes back to their membership for ratification; why can’t we go back to our membership, which I consider to be the town council,” she says.

Morgan would be willing to clarify the language, if it would ease the concerns of those who object.  It’s more likely, however, that she’ll rework the bill and submit it again during the next legislative session.