Teaching assistants, city at odds over contract

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LEWISTON – Teaching assistants and school officials are embroiled in a battle over their next contract, clashing over health insurance, wages and a myriad of other issues.

Negotiations have become so contentious that the two sides turned to mediation earlier this year. Now they’re arguing about one of the mediators.

“I wish there was some method of resolving this that leaves everyone feeling better than they currently do,” said Thomas Shannon, the School Committee’s representative on the negotiation team.

More than 150 teaching assistants, also known as educational technicians, work for the Lewiston School Department. Their three-year contract expired in August. Negotiations began last spring.

Contract agreements came quickly in the past.

This time, “we hit a brick wall,” said Sue Rowe, a union director for the teaching assistants.

The most contentious issue: Who should pay rising health insurance costs?

The school system wanted to cap its contribution, paying increases only up to 13 percent. Employees would be responsible for paying for any premium increases above 13 percent.

It’s a cap the school system has placed in other employee contracts. But teaching assistants, who make $10.54 to $15.77 an hour, argue they can’t afford to pay more for health insurance. Even with raises offered by the school system, they said, they’d be making less and less every year.

In September, the two sides went to a mediator. They were able to settle some issues, but not health insurance or wages.

In January, they requested a fact finding panel from the Maine Labor Relations Board. Three mediators – one for Lewiston, one for teaching assistants and one neutral – heard the two sides. In their report, the mediators opposed any insurance cap but said employees should pay 1 percent more toward their health insurance. They also recommended a slightly longer work year, more employee sick time and pay increases halfway between what Lewiston wanted and what teaching assistants wanted.

Teaching assistants said they could live with the compromises.

Lewiston officials said they couldn’t.

Soon after the recommendations were released, school officials complained that one of the mediators – the one representing teaching assistants – had been employed by the teachers’ union in the past. They also claimed that the mediator spoke with union people when he wasn’t supposed to.

“We felt that was inappropriate,” Shannon said.

The Maine Labor Relations Board has considered the allegations but has not issued a response.

Union officials deny they or the mediator did anything wrong. They believe Lewiston is trying to distract them.

“We view that as really a smokescreen to the bigger issue: resolving the contract,” Rowe said.

Ultimately, the two sides can go to binding arbitration. But for now, teaching assistants continue to work under their expired contract. No new negotiations have been scheduled.

Both sides do agree on one thing: They want a resolution soon.

“We’re stalemated here,” Rowe said.

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