The Coventry teachers union has no choice but to sue the town, union President Kelly Erinakes told the School Committee Tuesday after the committee adopted a resolution absoving itself from any liability for the underfunded school employee pension system.
"I don't know how you can ethically say you have no responsibility to the pension," Erinakes said before the committee adopted the resolution. "You'd be passing an untruth."
The School Committee untimately voted 2-1, with two members absent, to affirm the resolution the Town Council passed last month. Chairwoman Katherine Patenaude joined member Ann Dickson in approving the measure. Committee member Judith Liner voted no. Patenaude, despite voting for the resolution, indicated her opposition to it Tuesday. She said she signed on because the School Committee was required to do so in order to avoid another qualified town audit, which would likely lower the town's bond rating, costing taxpayers more to borrow money. Voters in November approved a slate of school improvement bonds.
According to the resolution, the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the School Committee and Coventry Teachers Association/School Related Personnel Local 1075 Union, states "the School Committee shall provide a contribution to a pension plan," but does not specifically obligate the committee to provide defined benefits outside of what is contractually required. Essentially, the resolution states the town and the committee are not responsible for the $24 million shortfall in the union pension. (See the full resolution attached.)
That leaves the question of who is responsible. Since 1977, the pension plan's board of trustees — made up of two members of the School Committee and two from the union — have set the pension terms. Erinakes asked the committee how it can now disavow itself of any responsibility.
"Since the 1970s this committee and this union have worked together," Erinakes said. "Now it seems this committee is washing its hands of it. We are supposed to be in this together. You're forcing a lawsuit. You're putting the union in a position that it has to file a lawsuit."
Patenaude, while saying she only approved the resolution because she did not want to hamstring the town's ability to borrow money, seemed to welcome a lawsuit to answer the question of liability.
"If it means a lawsuit, so be it," Patenaude said. "Nothing will happen until someone sues someone."