School dispute spices up campaign

Challenger faults mayor on pay issue

By James O’Brien
Globe Correspondent / October 29, 2009

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A bitter dispute in Marlborough over teachers’ pay has not only disrupted the high school accreditation process, it has added fireworks to the mayoral race.

As Mayor Nancy Stevens campaigns for her third term, she is locked in a showdown with the teachers union over her decision, with the School Committee’s support, to stop paying salary increases to teachers after their contract expired in August.

Stevens contends the city could not afford the approximately $1 million that teachers would have received under the expired contract in raises based on years of experience and education.

But her opponent, Joseph Collins, maintains the city moved too slowly during negotiations last spring to avoid “backing our teachers into a corner.’’

“I think it has turned into a huge issue for that race,’’ said City Councilor at large Patricia Pope, who is also seeking another term in the Nov. 3 election.

Since the pay freeze went into effect in September, teachers have picketed before school hours and “worked to rule,’’ meaning only working the minimum hours required by the contract. The city and the teachers union are in mediation over the pay dispute.

The controversy heated up further last week when Marlborough school officials asked the New England Association of Schools and Colleges to postpone an accreditation visit to Marlborough High School for fear teachers would picket. The association will decide in January whether to grant the postponement.

“We have a fantastic high school,’’ said Stevens, who also serves as chairwoman of the School Committee. “No one wanted to take away from the excellent work we’ve done to prepare for this.’’

Stevens, who is pushing for a one-year extension of union contracts citywide, defends the way Marlborough handled teacher negotiations during the spring. She says the city scheduled contract talks as quickly as logistics allowed, in a year complicated by the economic crisis.

During a debate Oct. 19, Collins suggested that Stevens turn to Marlborough’s stabilization fund, a reserve of money the mayor hopes to preserve in a down economy, to pay the teachers their increases.

“In this economy? No,’’ said Stevens in an interview last week. “I would not, right now. If we have to go several years like this, we’re going to be tapping into that just to maintain services.’’

Although the teachers union hasn’t officially endorsed Collins, union spokeswoman Alyson Wood said Marlborough teachers are “by and large pleased that he seems to be echoing concerns about the contracts.’’

Stevens’s office said she has neither asked for, nor received, union endorsements this campaign.

The dispute over teachers’ pay has provided sparks in an election year that observers such as City Council president Arthur Vigeant said has otherwise been “extremely quiet.’’

Stevens has been a political figure in Marlborough since 1999, when she was elected to the School Committee. Joining the City Council in 2003, she advocated for school budget reductions but fought against school bus fees.

Winning her first bid for mayor in 2005 by 467 votes, Stevens ousted incumbent Dennis Hunt and became Marlborough’s first woman to hold the post. She was reelected in 2007 by an overwhelming 4,449-to-1,689 vote over challenger Patrick Hogan, then president of the city’s police union. That was also a year when she went head-to-head with teachers over raises.

Her recent record shows she can bring money to Marlborough, such as a $10 million grant for upgrades to the city’s waste-water treatment facility and $4.5 million for bridge repairs.

She has also weathered recent scrutiny, following her acknowledgement this year of a dating relationship with public works commissioner Ronald LaFreniere and questions about her unsuccessful nomination of a close friend to the post of city personnel director.

In an interview last week, Stevens declined to comment further on the intersection of her personal life and public politics.

“That was months ago,’’ she said. “That has all passed.’’

Collins is a newcomer to city politics. Raised in the city since the age of 3, he joined the Marines after graduating in 1995 from Marlborough High School.

Collins met his wife in the service, while he was stationed in California, and the couple moved to Marlborough in 2007. He works in the accounting department of Boston law firm Fish & Richardson P.C.

Collins’s platform calls for cutting expenses and restructuring Marlborough toward what he says would be a better system of communicating fiscal realities to departments and unions, avoiding what he describes as costly delays.

When the city makes its budget, for example, Collins said his administration would annotate every line item to indicate how funding for that item might change in following years, and what steps should be taken in seeking alternate sources of revenue for the item.

Collins also wants to increase MCAS scores in Marlborough, saying the schools should make adjustments for potential testing troubles early on.

“Some students have an internal drive causing them to excel in school,’’ Collins said. “Group those students in a larger classroom, and then as students go down into the below-proficiency range, make their classes a little bit smaller.’’

Celeste Wright, head of the election division in the city clerk’s office, wondered last week how motivated voters are about the mayoral contest.

“Very few houses have political signs,’’ Wright said. “It just doesn’t seem to be what it used to be; we used to be inundated with signs.’’

Collins said he has been “knocking on doors and shaking hands,’’ as the Nov. 3 election nears. “I am running against the incumbent, and the number-one thing that could hold me back is face recognition.’’

The candidates agree on that point: Stevens said face-time with constituents matters most.

“Signs don’t vote,’’ Stevens said.

Globe Correspondent Calvin Hennick contributed to this report.