BRISTOL - Talks between the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union (ANESU) school boards and the teachers union have stalled, and there are no positive signs that either side will soon return to the negotiating table.
The impasse is the result of an intense contract negotiating process that left both sides dissatisfied with the outcome. At issue were teacher salaries, automatic pay increases (or "step increases") the percentage that teachers contribute to their health insurance plan, and a requirement that teachers work an extra hour per week to attend staff meetings. The school boards represent five town elementary schools and Mt. Abraham Union Middle/High School.
At the start of the negotiating process, the school boards proposed a 3.5 percent decrease in teacher salaries, in line with the cuts imposed on state workers this year. They also proposed to end step increases, which are not currently negotiated as part of the compensation package, and they asked teachers to increase their contribution to their health insurance plans to 20 percent, up from 10 percent, in line with what the State of Vermont has requested of school districts statewide. They also asked for an additional hour of work time per week to attend meetings.
The teachers union originally proposed a 5.5 percent salary increase, continuing step increases, no changes to the 10 percent insurance contribution and no extra work/meeting time.
Compromises were hammered out and the final contract offer from the school board reduced the health insurance contribution from 20 percent to 15 percent, with an average wage increase of 2.5 percent this year, the elimination of automatic step increases in the future, and a half hour of extra work time. The union declined, and all six district boards voted unanimously to impose the contract, which they can legally do for up to one year.
Lanny Smith, chairman of Mount Abe's school board and chairman of the negotiating team, feels the school board's offer is fair and that the board has negotiated in good faith.
"This isn't against the teachers," he said. Instead, it's a reflection of current economic conditions - the taxpayers can't afford to continue to pay what the teacher's union is asking for. "Lots of schools have settled for smaller increases in salary in order to avoid cutting positions."
A final public meeting held last week did not bring any resolution. Although it was well attended, one observer felt that the attendees were mainly teachers and their families and friends, and that the general public was not well represented at the meeting.
"Message to the school boards: At some point, somebody has to say 'enough,'" said Starksboro resident John Jefferies, who attended the meeting.
Between 75 percent and 80 percent of all school expenses are for personnel; primarily salaries and benefits. Consequently, there is a direct relationship between growth in teacher costs and property taxes.
On the other side of the table, the teachers feel equally frustrated with the process and the outcome.
"Obviously it's a slap in the face," said Heather Parkhurst, the union's chief negotiator and a calculus teacher at Mt. Abraham Union High School. "The teachers are angry and feeling very underappreciated. It's unfortunate that the board and the public don't get that."
Superintendent Evelyn Howard is also disheartened with the current situation and said that the boards are concerned that the process remains respectful, and that they highly value the teaching staff of all the schools.
"We wouldn't have wanted this, and I'm hopeful we can move forward," said Howard, adding that she hopes the teachers will take some time to consider their choices, which are either accept the imposed contract or call for a strike.
Parkhurst said a strike would only be called with the intention of bringing the school boards back to the negotiating table. However, Howard and Smith are both hopeful that the teachers will accept the imposed contract and move forward with the next round of negotiations targeting June 30, the end of the fiscal year.
"We want to start again as soon as we can and move on," Parkhurst said.