Rutland Herald: Goddard Talks Reaching Critical Point

rutlandReprinted from the Rutland Herald, 2/22/2014:
Goddard talks reaching critical point
By Eric Blaisdell
STAFF WRITER | February 22,2014

PLAINFIELD — Contract negotiations between the faculty at Goddard College and the administration are quickly coming to a head, and with an impasse likely some faculty members say they are ready to strike.

According to an email from the faculty bargaining committee to faculty members that was obtained by The Times Argus, the committee met with the administration Feb. 13 in what was the third session with a federal mediator. According to the email, this last meeting was held at the request of the mediator in hopes of producing an agreement, because Goddard’s administration had told the mediator the talks were moving toward an impasse.

The faculty and staff are represented in separate negotiations by United Auto Workers Local 2322, based in Massachusetts.

The email said the Feb. 13 meeting was held off the record so discussions there could not be disclosed.

At the end of the meeting, according to the email, the committee asked the administration to present its best offer and the committee would present the offer to the faculty for a vote for ratification.

The offer, according to the email, is a four-month agreement that would expire June 30. In the proposal, the faculty would take a 4 percent pay cut that would continue past June until a new contract is agreed to; a suspension of the retirement match until June 30; a reference to the limited protection of the union in the event of a sale of the school; and a “significant diminishment in faculty severance benefits.”

According to the email, the proposal would provide a single lump sum of $15,000 to any fully salaried faculty members who are laid off and $7,500 to any other faculty who are laid off.

The committee is scheduling information sessions about the offer with the hope of a vote coming sometime next month.

According to the email, the bargaining committee also asked for, but was not given, other provisions, such as an administration promise not to seek to diminish or eliminate faculty severance benefits in future negotiations and a strengthening of the seniority provision in the current retrenchment article — which does not require the administration to give any weight to seniority when determining whom to lay off, except when deciding between two faculty members with equal qualifications and abilities.

According to the email, the bargaining committee has refused to recommend ratification of this offer but agreed not to recommend its rejection.

Faculty member Susan Kim, who teaches creative writing, said she was shocked when she heard the offer.

“It seems to indicate a real unwillingness on their part to negotiate, which startled me,” she said. “We’ve been working really hard to try to work with the idea that we need to cut costs.”

Kim, a seven-plus-year member of the faculty, said she understands the college is facing financial hardship. Goddard is facing a deficit of around $1.5 million over the next two years if no changes are made and current economic and enrollment trends continue.

To help out, Kim said, she and other faculty members have taken voluntary leaves, saving the school $250,000 over the past year.

“We’re doing everything we can in terms of sacrifices and trying to drive enrollment to try to help the college,” she said.

Kim feels those efforts, however, are being stonewalled by the administration. The biggest concern Kim had was the administration targeting severance, which she called “stunning.”

“I don’t know what kind of gains that will give them financially unless they plan on laying off a lot of people,” she said. “If that’s the case, first of all, it’s like, wow. I’m a relatively new faculty member, and I’ve been there seven years. There are some people who have been (at Goddard) a really long time. That just seems really inhumane to get rid of people without severance.”

In October, the faculty voted to allow the union to act on its behalf, including calling a strike if the administration declares an impasse. Kim said she is ready to strike, if it comes to that, although she said the idea is unnerving.

“I’m a teacher and a writer, I’m not a militarist person,” Kim said. “I’m just trying to teach my students. I’m just trying to live my life.”

Reiko Rizzuto, a creative writing teacher who has been at Goddard for 10 years, said she is also ready to strike if an impasse is declared.

“The idea is we want to protect the students, protect the programs, have a say in keeping the vision and the mission of the college,” Rizzuto said.

She also wasn’t keen on the idea of removing severance, saying it indicates the potential for a restructuring at the school from the top down.

“Goddard is really a bottom-up system,” she said. “It starts with the students. The faculty support the students, the staff support the students and the faculty. … We think that is the right way to go about growing a college.”

Rizzuto said the administration proposal would weaken the college and that there is no reason to do that, since the college is strong with quality academic programs.

Avram Patt, the acting president at Goddard and a member of the board of trustees, wouldn’t talk much about the negotiations or the offer, saying he wants to respect the negotiating process.

“Rather than debating with individual union members through the newspaper, I really feel like we need to respect the collective bargaining process here and let (the committee) present the proposal, and if it’s ratified we’ll say what the terms were,” he said.

Patt did say that everything the administration has been bargaining about since last summer has to do with the financial security of Goddard and the ability to keep people employed. He hoped the agreement would get ratified.

Patt couldn’t confirm if the school had saved $250,000 from faculty members taking voluntary leaves last year but did say the school’s financial situation wasn’t going to get fixed by relying on voluntary leaves.

The staff are also negotiating a contract, having voted in January 2013 to join UAW.

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