As the school year winds down, Hamilton County Schools still has no 2009-2010 contract for its employees, and officials trying to hammer out the details seem confused.
It's time to put the old negotiating cycle to rest and start a new one, complete with new issues to discuss, the teachers' union says.
But even though Hamilton County Education Association President Sharon Vandagriff found records that indicate all sides had agreed to start talking about a new round of contract negotiations, school district officials maintain no decision has been made.
They want to finish up the current discussion that began in February 2009 before moving on to anything new, they say.
The insurance committee will present recommendations for cost-saving measures at the next negotiation session, planned for the end of the month.
"(Starting a new cycle) was the last thing we discussed (at the last negotiation session)," Connie Atkins, assistant superintendent for human resources, said Tuesday during a negotiation session. "We were in the middle of the discussion, and frankly, Sharon (Vandagriff), you walked out. And I know because I followed you out."
Rhonda Catanzaro, liaison for the Tennessee Education Association, said she felt there had been plenty of misunderstandings during the "difficult year" of negotiations.
"A lot of it is because some people want to misunderstand," she said. "It does appear that there's collective amnesia between sessions."
"If your team says we agreed on it and our team says we didn't, then we obviously have a problem," said Ray Swoffard, deputy superintendent of campus support. "That doesn't sound like collaborative bargaining to me."
After 13 months of negotiations between the two sides, the main sticking points are salary and insurance. Meetings between the two groups often result in arguments, accusations and frustrations over slow progress.
Teachers' association representative Jennifer Woods, who teaches at Dawn School, said the media's presence at negotiations had hampered the ability to accomplish as much.
"Since the media has shown up, the atmosphere of negotiations has changed and how to handle outside agencies needs to be addressed," she said, according to minutes from a March 10 negotiation session.
Deputy Superintendent Rick Smith said he's never seen contract negotiations go on for so long. He has never seen a year where the two sides hadn't reached an agreement at least by Christmas.
"In my opinion, it's been rather long, too long," he said.
Connie Smith, the state Department of Education's assistant commissioner for the division of accountability, teaching and learning, said it is "generally a good idea" to have a new contract each year.
Technically, the district's employees can operate under the year-old contract until a new one is ratified, according to the document.
"It doesn't hurt anybody ... there is evergreen language," Ms. Vandagriff said. "The contract doesn't change unless it needs to be updated."
But Linda Mosley, chairwoman of the Hamilton County Board of Education's Finance Committee, thinks differently. She attended her first negotiation session Tuesday and said she was surprised by the lack of progress.
"I am disappointed that they met for over an hour and didn't accomplish a single thing," she said.
Ms. Mosley, who is working on trimming the school's system's 2010-2011 budget with Chief Financial Officer Tommy Kranz, said her job is more difficult because of the unresolved salary and insurance discussion.
Board members and district officials have said district employees must start paying more for their health insurance in order to help chip away at the system's projected budget shortfall.
At Tuesday's session, negotiators said the insurance committee would present more recommendations for cost-cutting changes at the end of the month. That presentation likely will be after the board votes on the district's budget.
"We need to move on. It's not acceptable," Ms. Mosley said. "I'm a little disappointed they won't have their final (insurance committee) report until after the budget vote."
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Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...