Supportive Mayor Quarrels With Conn. Unions

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The mayor of Bridgeport, Conn., who is widely regarded as a potential Democratic gubernatorial candidate, has taken on the teachers' union in his city and in the process angered its state affiliate, whose support could help his bid for statewide election.

Mayor Joseph P. Ganim and the Bridgeport City Council filed a lawsuit in state superior court earlier this month, seeking to vacate an arbitration award that gives the city's teachers raises in each of the next two years.

The mayor and the council argue that the city, which declared bankruptcy in 1991 but has since made a comeback, can't afford to pay teachers the raises both sides agreed to under the arbitration process.

Joseph P. Ganim

But the state teachers' union and its local affiliate regard the lawsuit as an attack on Connecticut's Teacher Negotiation Act, which they say was followed to the letter in the Bridgeport case.

The mayor's dispute with the local union and the school board marks an unusual break for Mr. Ganim, who has run television ads to promote Bridgeport's turnaround and proclaim the quality of its public schools.

The state and local unions also took to the media with a full-page ad in the Feb. 13 Connecticut Post, the Bridgeport newspaper, accusing Mr. Ganim of having two faces--one that "takes credit for investing in our public schools" and another that "disrespects the teachers in our schools."

Mayor Ganim also is a leader in a campaign by several Connecticut municipalities to bring a lawsuit against the state for what they believe is an inequitable implementation of its educational cost-sharing formula. The formula distributes state money to municipalities, and the cities then pay for the schools.

The city's 1,550 teachers are scheduled to receive raises of 4.9 percent next school year and 4.8 percent in 1999-2000.

Those amounts are more than twice the state average for teachers' raises, according to Christopher Duby, the mayor's press secretary.

"The mayor and any member of the City Council I've ever spoken to is in favor of giving teachers fair pay raises--provided we have a plan to pay for them," Mr. Duby said.

Countersuit Filed

Under state law, municipalities have the right to review arbitrated awards determined by state-appointed panels.

The Bridgeport City Council, in fact, rejected the first arbitration panel's recommendations that came out last fall.

In the meantime, however, both the Bridgeport school board and the teachers' union had agreed to the raises. The matter went before a second state panel, which affirmed them.

The Bridgeport Education Association has filed a motion to dismiss the city's lawsuit, arguing that "stipulated arbitration awards" are to be final and binding, said Cliff Silvers, the director of affiliate services for the Connecticut Education Association.

Union officials say that state law gives cities the right to have a representative at negotiations and during the arbitration proceedings, but that Mr. Ganim didn't send anyone to monitor them.

But Mr. Duby, the mayor's spokesman, said city officials contend in their lawsuit that they weren't properly notified of the negotiation sessions and arbitration meetings.

While the dispute rages, the 22,200-student Bridgeport district is losing teachers to neighboring suburbs, which pay between $7,000 and $11,000 a year more than the city.

Superintendent James A. Connelly said teachers began leaving in large numbers--as many as 70 this year--when the surrounding suburban districts' enrollment began to climb.

Noncompetitive Salaries

"We're at the point now of having recruitment and retention issues," the superintendent said. "Our minimum starting pay is competitive, but once you get beyond that, it's not competitive."

The settlement would not bring Bridgeport's teacher salaries near those of its neighboring suburbs or even put them on par with other urban districts in the state, said Daria M. Plummer, the president of the CEA, a National Education Association affiliate.

"There is a tremendous call away from the classrooms in Bridgeport," Ms. Plummer said. "We need continuity, and you don't get that with a revolving door."

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