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Connecticut's Arbitration Law for Teachers Reviewed

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A committee of the Connecticut legislature is studying the state's 10-year-old binding-arbitration law for settlement of teacher contracts to see if it has had an inflationary effect on teacher salaries.

Critics of the law--which requires that collective-bargaining disputes be resolved by an outside mediator--contend that it is biased in favor of the state's teachers, who enjoy one of the highest average salaries of teachers nationwide.

The 12-member legislative-review committee is expected to report in December on possible changes in the law for consideration by the 1990 session of the General Assembly. The panel plans to hold a series of hearings on the subject around the state this month.

As they prepare for the report and the ensuing legislative debate, critics and proponents of the dispute-resolution mechanism already have begun trading charges.

At a press conference last month, three Republican lawmakers argued that a "pattern of decisions being reached overwhelmingly in favor of the unions" has led to "a serious breakdown" in the arbitration system.

In response, Mark Waxenberg, president of the Connecticut Education Association, called the lawmakers' statements "a blatant attempt to sacrifice legitimate inquiry for political advantage."

Salary Inflation Charged

Senators James H. McLaughlin and M. Adela Eads and Representative Brian J. Flaherty said at the press conference that settlements were reached in favor of teachers in from 60 percent to 89 percent of arbitrated cases each year from 1984 to 1989.

The lawmakers also complained that teacher raises in both arbitrated and negotiated settlements over the past two years averaged 9.4 percent, while the annual inflation rate averaged 5 percent.

The salary increases demonstrate that local officials have submitted to excessive salary awards to avoid going to arbitration and risking even less favorable outcomes, they argued.

The legislators recommended several changes in the law, including adding a new fact-finding step, appointing a "fiscal representative" from the negotiating municipality to each arbitration hearing, and giving municipalities the power to reject state-arbitrated contracts.

Ms. Eads and Mr. Flaherty are members of the review commission.

Boards Opposed

The lawmakers' critique of the law echoed complaints long voiced by school and local-government officials.

The Connecticut Association of Boards of Education "is very much in favor" of the review of binding arbitration, according to its executive director, Terry Cassidy.

The association has been fighting the arbitration law in the courts since its passage, he noted.

The measure infringes on the rights of localities to govern themselves, Mr. Cassidy said.

"It takes away from the local municipality the ability to determine what the local budget will be," he said.

The committee plans to analyze the law's fiscal impact on municipalities and the state budget. It is also expected to look at the effect of the 1986 Education Enhancement Act on negotiation, mediation, and binding arbitration, among other topics.

'Not One-Sided'

But Mr. Waxenberg of the cea called binding arbitration a "fair and equitable" mechanism that has prevented strikes.

The law was passed in 1979 in response to a series of crippling teacher strikes. Since then, there have been no such walkouts in the state.

In the past 10 years, the union president said, only 20 percent of teacher contracts in the state have been arbitrated.

Of the 258 separate issues arbitrated last year--including salaries, health insurance, and length of the school day--school boards prevailed on 140 issues, he said, while teachers' associations won on only 118.

"It's clearly not a one-sided law," Mr. Waxenberg said. "All of the accusations come down to one simple thing--they want the control of teachers' salaries and the board budget back in their hands so they can dole out the dollars as they wish."

As for salary increases, Mr. Waxenberg said public-opinion polls in the state have consistently shown that the public favors making teachers' salaries more competitive.

Pay levels have risen dramatically as a result of the Education Enhancement Act, which increased starting salaries by 21 percent. The average teacher in the state now receives $37,339 annually.

"Historically, teachers' salaries have trailed the inflation rate by a good two to three years," Mr. Waxenberg said. "I didn't hear an outcry saying 'Let's give the teachers the inflation rate' when it was 12 percent."

Other States

Two other states, Wisconsin and Iowa, also mandate arbitration to settle teacher-contract disputes. Several others allow negotiating parties to enter into arbitration without requiring that they do so, according to John Dunlop, a compensation coordinator for the National Education Association.

A month-long teachers' strike in Great Falls, Mont., this year prompted 5,000 residents to sign a petition demanding that binding arbitration be used to settle the conflict. Eric Feaver, president of the Montana Education Association, said the union is examining whether to sponsor a statewide signature drive to put the matter before voters next year.

There is little support in the state legislature for binding arbitration, he said.

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