BRISTOL — Will Parini has the contract negotiation blues.
Parini, a new music teacher at Bristol and Starksboro elementary schools, stood up in front of a nearly full auditorium of Addison Northeast Supervisory Union teachers, board members and residents at Mount Abraham Union High School last Wednesday night and sang about the woes of the impasse reached on Dec. 16.
Parini was the last to speak in the discussion leading up to the negotiation committee’s vote to impose the ANeSU school boards’ final proposal as the terms for the 2010-2011 teachers’ contract.
A major feature of the proposal is an increase in the percentage of their health insurance premium teachers will pay, among other changes.
Heather Parkhurst, a Mount Abe math teacher and the lead negotiator on behalf of the Addison Northeast Education Association (teachers union), expressed her frustration following the school boards’ decision to impose the contract terms.
“We’re overwhelmingly disappointed,” she said Thursday. “At this point we will be meeting with our members in the next few days and discussing our next steps and options.”
Teachers and board members have been negotiating a new contract since September of 2009, but had not reached an agreement by the time the previous contract expired on June 30, 2010. Since the old contract expired, negotiators on behalf of the teachers and of the school boards met multiple times to discuss the terms of a new contract but those meetings ended in impasse.
In September, both parties agreed to hire a neutral “fact finder,” Sarah Kerr Garraty, who then made recommendations for the new contract terms based on Vermont laws that govern municipal and state employees. While some of the fact finder’s report recommendations support the school boards’ positions, others fall in favor of the teachers’ and still others recommended a compromise on both parts.
In the boards’ final offer to the teachers, the original 20-percent increase in health insurance contribution that the board members were pushing for was lowered to 15 percent — 5 percent more than what teachers are currently expected to pay. In her report, Garraty recommended that it stay at 10 percent, or a 90/10 split between what the board and teachers pay.
The terms approved by the boards last week will only last through the end of the 2010-2011 school year until new negotiations begin.
“This increase would not begin until Feb. 1, 2011, so teachers would be paying this increased amount for five months of this school year,” said Lanny Smith, chair of the school boards’ negotiation committee, at Wednesday’s meeting. “Depending on whether the teacher has a single or family coverage, this will increase teacher costs by between $326 and $852 per year.”
But health insurance is not the only issue on which teachers and board members remain divided. Step increases, or annual salary increases based on experience and number of years within the district, continue to be a point of contention. In her report, Garraty recommended an increase of 2.5 percent in Total New Money (TNM), which states that teachers should receive wage increases at the rate of 2.5 percent, though not necessarily through the step program.
Though the boards had hoped to place a freeze on all salaries, teachers are being awarded the step increases for the 2010-2011 school year.
“The boards are required to pay step increases automatically even when a settlement has not been reached for a new contract,” Smith said. “In other words, districts have to pay these increases even after the old contracts have expired. Therefore teachers have received increases even though we have not reached a new settlement even given our current economy and available revenues.”
The salary increases that all eligible teachers are receiving for the 2010-2011 school year average $1,606 per person for the year — an average 2.52-percent increase.
“Since the teachers have already received a $1,606 step increase as of the beginning of the year, I believe that it is more than enough of a raise, as few of the parents have received raises — many are feeling lucky that they even have a job,” Starksboro resident Heather Ragsdale said at Wednesday’s meeting.
Another Starksboro resident, Chris Brady, spoke in favor of the teachers, expressing his concern that if the board does not continue to offer competitive pay, the ANeSU may risk losing out on top recruits in the future.
“The thoughtful recommendations provided by the mediator in this negotiation by design, keep the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union competitive with school districts statewide and they ensure that fair agreement is reached,” Brady said. “Addison Northeast is always in competition for the best and brightest talent available. This will have seriously negative impacts on the ability of our schools to attract and retain the talent required to maintain the great schools we have here.”
Others who walked up to the microphone wearing the yellow stickers signifying support for the teachers’ union focused less on the specific points of disagreement, and more on the two parties’ inability to reach a settlement through negotiations.
“I’ve lived in Starksboro for the last 26 years, taught for the past 20 years,” Ruth Beecher told the negotiations committee. “Our daughter went through this school system. We teach our children to work out their problems, to talk about their problems and I don’t think this problem is solved yet. We still need to talk more about it.”
According to the teachers union’s Parkhurst, who has been urging the board negotiators to return to the bargaining table since the original impasse was reached this fall, the individual boards had already made up their minds as they gathered to vote on whether or not to adopt the negotiation committee’s proposal.
“I was at the Mount Abe meeting and it was quite moving to hear the support for continued negotiations,” she said. “The members came in with a decision already made, which was very disheartening. They even debated about going into executive session — it was quite insulting actually.”
The Mount Abe board did eventually go into executive session to discuss the proposal, and when they returned, they voted in favor of imposition.
“They came out very quickly,” Parkhurst said.
Parkhurst and other members of the teachers’ union will meet in the next few days to determine their next steps, which could include job action, or strike.
“I think it’s very important to note that the board has made the decision to possibly disrupt the school year,” she said. “The school boards have already disrupted the school year. They’ve made a divide.”
Like Parini, both teachers and board members expressed disappointment at Wednesday’s meeting in ending negotiations at imposition rather than settlement.
“I want to repeat a word that just resonated with me, which is divide,” Kristy Farrell, a Monkton resident and teacher said. “Imposition. Division. When I started teaching here 15 years ago, when collaborative negotiations were happening, one of the things that I enjoyed so much about the school is that everybody worked to do the best for kids.”
Members of the negotiations committee, too, stressed the difficulty they had in reaching these decisions.
“These are extraordinary times, but they are temporary times,” committee member and Mount Abe board member Bob Hall said. “I just hope that when all you folks get to vote on the proposal that the school board has put out, that you remember that these are temporary times and as times get better, I’m sure that we will compensate everybody as fairly and as justly as we can. But at this moment, I’m asking for just a little bit of compassion and perhaps some thought for those folks out here who are not as well off as most of us.”
Tamara Hilmes is at [email protected]