BRISTOL — Addison Northeast Supervisory Union teachers voted on Thursday to strike on Feb. 9 unless the committee negotiating on behalf ANeSU school boards agrees to return to the negotiating table to reach a settlement.
Teachers are currently working under the imposed contract terms voted on by ANeSU board members on Jan. 5. Now teachers are urging board members to reopen contract negotiations for the remainder of the 2010-2011 school year.
Since the contract imposition, members of the Addison Northeast Education Association (ANEA) have been lobbying and picketing in downtown Bristol for a return to the bargaining table.
Following Monday and Tuesday’s picketing, teachers met on Thursday and voted to strike on Feb. 9 unless the boards make a move to compromise.
“We met as a membership group and had time for discussion and talked through it, and people were able to voice their opinions,” said Heather Parkhurst, an AP Calculus teacher at Mount Abraham Union High School who is the lead negotiator on behalf of the teachers. “Then we voted, and there was an overwhelming majority vote to authorize the union leaders to call a strike on Feb. 9 if no movement is made from the board.”
According to Parkhurst, the teachers’ ultimate goal in striking would still be to reopen negotiations.
“Even though we’ve set that date, the goal is always to go back to the table,” she said. “It will be the goal up until that moment on Feb 9, and it will be our goal also if we end up not going to work that day.”
The decision to strike did not come easily, said Parkhurst.
“The board made the decision to disrupt the school year by imposing a set of working conditions,” she said. “ They’ve left us with no choice. They won’t talk to us.”
Last Friday, Parkhurst sent letters to each of the members of the six ANeSU boards, urging them to reconsider the imposed contract and to come back to the table to reach a settlement.
“Imposing conditions instead of bargaining an agreement hurts the relationship between teachers and the school boards,” Parkhurst wrote in the letter.
“It also hurts our schools, community and students because it represents a breakdown of a willingness to work together. The teachers stand ready and able to reach a deal that is fair to teachers, good for the schools and fair to taxpayers. It can be done. Upholding imposition is not the answer. The teachers will be meeting on January 27th to discuss our next steps; we hope that you will consider yours.”
Reaching out to board members in this way was part of the teachers’ plan to educate the board members on their options, she said.
“There’s been a lot of misinformation from a lot of the board members,” Parkhurst said. “Board members have said, ‘We can’t go back to the table, that’s not even an option now.’ We’re trying to educate the board members about their options. We can go back to the table, and we can negotiate.”
As of Friday morning, teachers and board members had not been in contact with each other since Thursday night’s vote.
“We haven’t heard from them since last night,” Parkhurst said. “I think they were saddened by the vote last night, and I hope that helps them make the decision to return to the table.”
According to Lanny Smith, chairman of the Mount Abe board and lead negotiator on behalf of the ANeSU boards, no one from the ANEA has contacted him since the vote, and no meetings have been planned.
“What’s there to change?” Smith said in an interview on Friday. “We made an offer, they made an offer and we negotiated for a long time. Hopefully we can negotiate again, but the step increase will still be an issue. It’s a yes or no answer.”
Smith said that he and the other board members would like to avoid a strike and a disruption of the school year, but unless teachers are willing to compromise on the three key issues of the step increase, insurance contributions and salary increases, one more negotiation session will not do any good.
According to Smith, there is still a big disconnect between what the teachers think is fair and what the boards are willing to offer.
At the last of the negotiation sessions prior to the Jan. 5 imposition, teachers offered to cover 10.5 percent contribution toward health insurance for the 2011-2012 school year — only a 0.5 percent increase from the 10 percent that they currently pay, while the boards were looking to double the contribution sum to 20 percent. Additionally, teachers asked for a 2.9-percent wage increase, and board members, who originally hoped to freeze salaries, stayed firm at 2.5-percent increases.
“Hopefully they’ll come to the table to negotiate,” Smith said. “They haven’t wanted to compromise, but if they did that would be great. We want to keep kids in school — we’re here to educate kids. That’s what we want. We want to do what we can do to make sure the students have a good experience here at school.”
The teachers of Addison Northeast, said Parkhurst, are ready to bend their demands in order to reach a compromise.
“The overall message we’re sending is that we wouldn’t be asking to go back to the table if we weren’t willing to move on issues,” she said. “We’re willing to look at everything and be creative to come up with something that both groups and the community can be comfortable with.”
Should board members and teachers fail to reach a settlement before Feb. 9, ANeSU students could see a disruption in their school year.
According to Smith, the supervisory union still has 10 vacation days, but beyond that, class time would have to be made up.
Historically, teachers’ strikes in Vermont have only lasted a couple days at most, according to Darren Allen, Communications Director at the Vermont branch of the National Education Association, though technically, there’s no limit on how long a strike can last.
“Teachers don’t want to be on strike,” Allen said. “Most strikes in Vermont — and there haven’t been that many — last a couple of days, but there’s no predicting what will happen if the board digs its heels in.”
Allen, like Parkhurst and Smith, is hopeful that ANeSU can avoid a strike.
“A deal can be made here,” he said. “Teachers voted to say, ‘Look, you’ve got this much time to come back to this table, or we’re going to strike.’ The goal of any association in a situation like this is to tell the boards that there’s still time — they can undo what they’ve done. They can prevent any disruption of the school year.”
But should the boards refuse to return to the table by the Feb. 9 deadline, teachers will not hesitate to walk.
“This is one of the toughest decisions that we’ve ever had to make in our professional careers…My hope is that for future negotiations the board really looks at how they’re negotiating with the teachers, and that they see us as group to work with, rather than against,” Parkhurst said.
“At this point, with imposition, relationships are bruised right now. I really hope we don’t have to get to Feb. 9, but if job action has to occur, my hope is that we can, again, still go back to the table and start to heal.”
Tamara Hilmes is at email@example.com.