May 23, 2012  11:00 PM

Teachers Flame Contract Extension Proposal.

With the votes of more than 850 Manchester teachers tallied, the proposed contract extension negotiated between Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas and Manchester Education Association President Ben Dick to save approximately 140 teacher positions went down in flames Wednesday night as teachers voted by a stupefying 3 to 1 margin to reject the proposal.  Reaction was swift, strong and varied.

“I am very disappointed with the union’s leadership,” said Ward 9 Alderman Barbara Shaw.  “There was a lot of confusion out there.  The teachers didn’t know if the retirement stipend was legal and weren’t sure what would happen if there weren’t enough retirements.  The leadership didn’t sell the contract to the members and they could’ve settled this weeks ago.”

Shaw’s criticism was aimed at the MEA’s executive board, which unanimously voted against endorsing the contract.  She said she heard from many teachers that that added to the uncertainties with the contract and negatively affected the vote.

About MEA President Ben Dick, Shaw had laudatory things to say.  “I’m proud of him.  He was thinking of the teachers and of the future of the city.  He was trying to buy time for the city to get a plan together for its educational future and I think he did a great job.”

Shaw, who had indicated she would be open to overriding the budget caps said unless the teacher’s union accepts concessions as the city’s other unions have, she will oppose any budget override vote.  “I hope they come back to the table,” she said.  “It’s the only way to make the numbers work.”  She suggested that the city and union “leave the retirement stuff out of it” and simply focus on greater health insurance concessions to make up the difference.  “I’ve heard from teachers that they’d be willing to make bigger concessions on the health insurance if they just left the retirement stuff alone.”

Ward 4 Alderman Jim Roy seemed dumbfounded by the vote. “If I were in that group and it was truly for the kids, I’d say ‘what do you want?’  To not be part of the solution doesn’t make sense to me.  How is this vote about the kids?”  When asked if he thought the votes were there to override the cap, Roy stated flatly “It’s not gonna happen.”

When told about the outcome of the vote, Alderman at-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur exclaimed “Oh my God!”  He laid blame for the situation squarely at the feet of Gatsas and the school board that voted for the current contract.  “I don’t blame the union,” he said.  “I blame Gatsas and the school board for voting for a contract we couldn’t afford.  But, I wish the union had made the concessions.  It would have helped the teachers, the students and the city as a whole.”

Levasseur believes it’ll be up to the aldermen to “put their collective heads together and do the hard work necessary to fix this.”  Levasseur indicated he was willing to find a way to find more money for the schools in the budget, but said he would not vote to override the tax cap.

For his part, Gatsas said he was “saddened” by the ratification vote.  “It looks like one hundred and sixty one people are going to go home at the end of the school year.”

When asked if there were plans to meet further with union officials and discuss alternatives, a frustrated sounding Gatsas replied, “My door remains open to the teacher’s union.  I’ll be glad to discuss any ideas they  have to fix this problem.”

Gatsas vowed to continue negotiations with the remaining school unions, including the Association of Manchester Principals who came to negotiated terms earlier this week.

Ward 12 Alderman Patrick Arnold took a wait and see approach.  “Certainly this vote doesn’t help the case for overriding the cap,” said Arnold.  “I would’ve liked to see them accept the concessions.”  However, Arnold remained open to overriding the cap depending on how the overall budget looked as a “total package.”

Calls to Dick, Ward 1 Alderman Joyce Craig, Ward 2 Alderman Ron Ludwig and Alderman at-Large Dan O’Neil, Chairman of the Board of Aldermen, were not returned prior to publishing this article.

Earlier in the day, Superintendent Tom Brennan feared the worst.  “I think it’s going to fail,” he opined.  “There’s a lot of negative feedback out there and I’m very concerned about the consequences to the district if it gets voted down.”  In addition to the 161 laid off district employees, the district will also lose some 40 teachers to retirement, resignation or non-renewal.  Absent concessions, the district will be unable to fill any of those vacancies.