The Woodbridge Teachers’ Arbitration Award – First Interest Arbitration Award of the 2019-20 Teachers’ Negotiation Season

The 2019-20 certified teachers’ and administrators’ negotiation season is just about at the halfway mark.  While, as to be expected, the overwhelming majority of contracts up for negotiation so far have settled at either the negotiation or mediation phases of the Teacher Negotiation Act [“TNA”] process, contract negotiations in several communities have reached binding interest arbitration – the TNA’s dispute resolution procedure for when boards of education and teacher or administrators’ unions can’t reach a settlement at the bargaining table.

The first interest arbitration award was made public several weeks ago.  The award addresses successor collective bargaining agreement negotiations for the Woodbridge teachers.  Arbitrators Michael Ricci (the neutral arbitrator), Gail McKinley-Anderson (the union arbitrator) and John Romanow (the management arbitrator) comprised the interest arbitration panel.  A copy of the award is available here.

While every arbitration award turns on its own set of facts, the Woodbridge Award should be of interest to boards of education across Connecticut for several reasons.

First (and maybe foremost) is the money.  The Award results in a total teachers’ salary account increase of 9.01% over three years.  Of that amount, only 2.5% comes in the form of general wage increases (“GWI”) while the remaining 6.51% is the result of annual step-movement for teachers not on the top step of Woodbridge’s new fifteen-step salary scale.  The Woodbridge Teachers’ Association’s (the “Association”) last best offer (“LBO”) on wages was awarded in years one and three of the contract, with the Board’s LBO awarded in year two.

Looking at the LBOs is interesting.    In the first year, the Association’s LBO called for a GWI of 1.25% with step-movement while the Board offered 1.5% GWI with no step-movement; the Association’s LBO was selected.  In year two, the Association’s LBO again called for 1.25% GWI with step-movement, while the Board’s LBO called for step-movement only – no GWI; the Board’s LBO was selected.  Finally, in year three the Association’s LBO once again called for 1.25% GWI with step-movement, while the Board’s LBO called for a 1.75% GWI for top-step teachers with step-movement only for teachers not at top step; the Association’s LBO was selected.

The net-effect of the Award – i.e. only 2.5% GWI for teachers at top-step (slightly more with compounding) while non-top-step teachers collect the 2.5% GWI and step-movement — was the subject of a dissenting opinion from Arbitrator Romanow who argued that even if the panel felt that the Association should have won two of the three years in question, the arbitration panel’s selection of the Board’s LBO in year one, followed by the Association’s LBOs in years two and three would have better satisfied the TNA’s statutory factors and more evenly distributed wage increases among teachers in the bargaining unit.  Instead, Arbitrator Romanow argued, the Award greatly favored less-experienced teachers within the bargaining unit over top-step teachers without any compelling reason for doing so.

In addition to wage increases, the Award also resolved several proposed changes to the Woodbridge teachers’ current High-Deductible Health Plan with Health Savings Account (“HDHP/HSA”).  The Award resulted in employee premium cost share increases from 13% to 17.5% over the course of three years  — 2% premium cost share increases were awarded to the Board in years one and three, and a .5% increase awarded to the Association in year two.

In addition, the arbitration panel also accepted a Board LBO that will amend the teachers’ current health insurance plan design by eliminating the “cross-accumulation” of health care costs to in-network and out-of-network deductibles.  The elimination of cross-accumulation of deductibles means that if a health insurance plan participant incurs out-of-network costs those costs will only apply to an out-of-network deductible and not an in-network deductible as well.  So, for example, if a teacher went out-of-network for a $1,000 procedure, that $1,000 would not apply to the teacher’s $2,500 single-coverage HDHP deductible.

While the panel noted that few public-sector HDHP/HSA plans include this feature, it awarded the Board’s proposal given Woodbridge’s average annual 10.4% increase in health insurance premiums over a four year period.  This is significant.  Expect to see the elimination of cross-accumulation of deductibles gain wide acceptance in the future as boards of education and other public-sector employers rely on the Woodbridge Award to justify such a plan design change to their HDHP plans.

Finally, the Woodbridge Award is also notable for what it did not do.  Language changes proposed by both the Board and the Association on issues like teacher prep-time, faculty meetings, paid FMLA and other issues were rejected by the arbitration panel in favor of preserving the status quo.  In deciding these issues, the Award repeatedly notes that a party seeking to change existing language in a contract has a high evidentiary burden.  Arbitrators are reluctant to change what the parties have negotiated over the years unless there is a truly compelling reason to do so and the Woodbridge Award reinforces this arbitration maxim.

The Woodbridge Award is worth noting not just for the parties to the dispute, but also for all boards of education that are, or soon will be, at the negotiating table.  Arbitration awards give insight into the ways in which arbitrators analyze common negotiation issues in light of the TNA’s statutory factors like “ability to pay” and the history of negotiations between the parties prior to arbitration.  As such, superintendents, business managers and board of education members – particularly negotiating team members – should consider the Woodbridge Award and other recent arbitration awards in formulating an effective negotiation strategy.