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Bristol area schools and teachers discussing new contracts

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January 24, 2008

By CYRUS LEVESQUE

BRISTOL — Negotiations over teacher contracts in the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union have reached a pivotal moment. A fact-finding report released by a mediator to the parties this month and a Jan. 17 meeting led to agreement on several parts of a proposed new contract, but some major issues like salaries, health insurance and planning time remain unresolved.

The negotiating committees for the six ANeSU school boards and the teachers’ union, the Addison Northeast Education Association, plan to meet again on Feb. 7 with mediator Ira Lobel of Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to continue talks.

Teachers in the ANeSU schools — Beeman Elementary School in New Haven, Bristol Elementary School, Lincoln Community School, Monkton Central School, Robinson Elementary School in Starksboro and Mount Abraham Union High School — have been working without a contract since July 2007 while the union and the school boards of the schools have tried to come to an agreement.

The mediator’s fact-finding report will not be made public until Jan. 28, according to ANeSU Superintendent Evelyn Howard.

A number of components of the contract have essentially been settled, but all agreements are tentative until a contract is finalized and signed. Casey said the school boards and the union have reached tentative agreements on the sick leave, scheduling rules for extracurricular activities, and several related issues.

Details were not available on all those agreements as the Addison Independent went to press, but Joanne Casey, head negotiator for the teachers’ union, said that most of those aspects of the contracts will probably remain the same as under the last contract.

SALARIES

The two sides have tentatively agreed on the total amount of increase in salaries, according to Howard: an increase of 4.25 percent for this year, 4 percent in the second year of the contract and 4 percent in the third year; increases that are in line with other area teacher settlements, according to Howard. However, they have not yet agreed on how that money would be distributed among teachers.

Teachers’ salaries are determined on a scale, where both experience and further education raises a teacher’s salary. Salaries range from $32,000 per year in the current contract for a newly hired teacher, Casey said, to about 200 percent of that amount, or $64,000, for a teacher at the top of the salary schedule. A teacher at the top of the scale would have a master’s degree in education plus 30 hours of education credits, and about 20 years of experience.

The teacher’s union wants to keep the current pay scale, in which each step of the salary schedule increases base salary by 5 percent, while increasing the base salary for teachers from $32,000 in the current contract to $33,115.

The school negotiators, on the other hand, have proposed increasing the base salary to $35,234, but they also want to decrease the base salary multiplier from 5 percent to 4 percent. Howard argued in a press release that the reduction in increases would allow the district to keep base salaries higher, making the ANESU competitive with other districts in the county. If the salary scale is kept the same in all other respects, the top salary would be $63,421, but Howard said that the salary schedule would likely be adjusted as well, and the top salary would still work out to be roughly double the base salary.

The union’s proposed base salary would be an increase over the current salary, but still about $1,000 less than the average base salary in Addison County, making it harder for schools in the five-town area to attract new teachers, she said.

Casey said the union’s negotiating team only received the details of the school boards’ salary program in recent weeks, so she could not yet comment on how it would work.

The cost of health insurance for teachers remains unresolved as well. According to Howard, teachers at the ANeSU now pay 10 percent of their insurance premiums, regardless of the type of plan. The union is asking for no change to that, Howard said in a press release, but negotiators for the school boards want to increase the employees’ portion of their health insurance premiums by 1 percent every year for three years.

A third major sticking point still between the school boards and the teachers’ union is planning time.

Casey said that the school boards are planning changes to school schedules that will give the teachers much less time for class-related work outside classes.

“The school board is proposing to cut planning time in half, but we’re still supposed to do the same job,” she said. “Planning time is not one of the things that can go on the chopping block, in my view.”

According to Howard, changes under consideration would not decrease the amount of available planning time, just refocus it from individual planning time to more time for collaborative work, which she says is becoming more important.

“It’s essential for sharing the work that needs to be done for (student achievement),” Howard explained.

The negotiators will come together again at a meeting on Feb. 7. Both Casey and Howard agreed that they hoped the remaining issues could be resolved and settled at that meeting. According to Casey, the union might consider a strike if negotiations reach an impasse, but she thinks it won’t come to that.

“Nobody would ever want to go there,” she said.

Howard also said that the disagreements will probably be resolved without either side taking drastic steps.

“I think both sides are feeling like going to mediation will be really helpful,” she said.

Previous contract negotiations have gone to mediation, according to Casey, but to her knowledge this may be the first time the district has needed more than one session of mediation for a contract.

NEW TACTICS

According to Casey, teachers have found it harder to communicate with school board members during the contract negotiations. Both sides have always consulted lawyers but she said that these negotiations have been the first in which the school boards asked their lawyers to be present and take part in much of the actual negotiations from the start, sometimes resulting in the lawyers doing most of the talking, as opposed to the school board members.

“We’ve never run into this situation before … We were rather shocked,” Casey said. “Our voices are heard, but we would like to hear from” the board members.

Another difference this year has been the scope of the negotiations. For the first time, all six schools in the ANESU are negotiating their teacher contracts together. No more than three or four schools have negotiated together in previous years; now, all six schools are at the negotiating table, and Howard said that the greater complexity of the issues is why they have had lawyers more heavily involved.

“There are lots more people at the table than normal,” she said.

This may result in fewer direct interactions between the individuals on either side of the bargaining table, but Howard argued that the change has simplified things overall, so the district only has to consult one lawyer and negotiate with one group of teachers.

“It’s a matter of better use of resources,” she said.

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