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Thursday October 23, 2014

Schools reopened and students and teachers returned to the classroom Monday, October 20,with a new three-year contract marking the end of the teachers’ strike.

A tentative agreement was reached between the South Burlington Educators Association and the South Burlington School Board at 10 p.m. Saturday, October 18, after marathon talks to negotiate a contract, according to a statement issued by mediator Joe McNeil.

The contract was accepted by the SBEA Monday afternoon, and was ratified by the board in a public meeting Monday evening, October 20.

School Board Chair Elizabeth Fitzgerald read a statement on behalf of the board, announcing the terms of the agreement.

The three year contract provides for an 8.01% increase in total compensation over three years, and increases the employee share for health care premiums from 16% in the first year to 17% in each of the final two years. “Year over year salary increases are below those of neighboring districts and supervisory unions, but maintain the premium compensation associated with the high expectations South Burlington has of its educators,” Fitzgerald said.

As part of the agreement, the SBEA withdrew the unfair labor practice charge it had filed with the Vermont Labor Relations Board against the school board and its five members both individually and as members of the board.

Fitzgerald said, “The board is satisfied that this settlement represents the interests of all its stakeholders at this time and most importantly, serves to fulfill our primary responsibility of providing a quality public education at a cost that our community can afford. We also believe that important groundwork has been laid for healthcare and total compensation discussions in the future.”

Comments from an audience of about 25 people included expressions of gratitude to the board for their efforts. Parents said they are worried about the effects of the strike on their children and communicated their concerns for the well being of the community after such a devisive event.
In an email to The Other Paper on Monday night, Eric Stone, on behalf of the SBEA wrote, “Teachers are very happy to get back into the classroom. Hopefully this settlement will provide stability for the district over the next 3 years and that our focus can be where we want it to be: on the kids.”

Recap of the Week’s Events

At the heart of the issue was the successor to the teachers’ contract which expired June 30, 2014. Although they had been in negotiations since December 2013, the South Burlington Educators Association and the South Burlington School Board were unable to reach an agreement on a new contract. The primary sticking points involved the teachers’ health care plan and salaries.

Schools close as the strike begins

Monday, Oct. 13, Superintendent David Young announced that effective Tuesday, Oct. 14, schools were closed and all classes, and co-curricular activities were cancelled until further notice. Tuesday, morning district teachers officially went on strike in the first work stoppage in South Burlington school history.

Tuesday, Oct. 14, the SBEA filed unfair labor practice charges against the board. The SBEA alleged the board had used stalling tactics to circumvent the negotiating process by not responding immediately to the union’s compromise offer made on October 6, and had tried to negotiate directly with teachers by holding an all-employee meeting regarding health care plans. Superintendent Young responded to the association’s allegations, citing that Vermont law states that parties are not obligated to arrive at every negotiation session fully prepared to respond to what’s presented. Addressing the health care meeting , Young stated that notice of the meeting was provided September 23 and the purpose of the meeting was to provide information to all district staff, regarding VEHI’s insurance plans.

While teachers picketed and schools remained closed, many wondered how did we get here?

SBEA, the board, and the public meet

As day two of the teacher’s strike drew to a close Oct. 15, the school board was gearing up for its regularly scheduled board meeting at Tuttle Middle School library. By 6:45 p.m. hundreds of teachers packed the space and held signs indicating the number of years they had served the school district. A sizable contingent of students, and a large number of parents filled the remainder of room.

Public comments were heard for an hour and a half.

Over fifty student athletes were present at the Oct. 15 board meeting to make their case for the reinstatement of activities, particularly sports, since many playoffs for fall sports were scheduled for the week of Oct. 20. Senior Sarah Fisher gave an impassioned speech stating that 64 seniors would be missing top opportunities if sports were not reinstated. Fisher said, “Teams need to be back on the field tomorrow morning. South Burlington athletes need to continue with or without a strike resolution.”

Many teachers, including SBEA Chief Negotiator Eric Stone spoke, saying they didn’t want to have to resort to being on strike and that they would prefer to be in their classrooms teaching. They implored the board to reach a fair settlement. One teacher focused on the high academic achievements of district students. Many expressed pride in their jobs and that they shared the heartache of not being in school. Several said that teaching isn’t simply what they do, but who they are.

Parents expressed frustrations on many levels, including child-care predicaments, rising taxes, and how to explain the strike to their children; particularly young students who were just beginning to establish a routine. Most parents began by lauding the school board for their time and efforts throughout the negotiation process and for looking out for the taxpayer. Parents also acknowledged that they respected the work of teachers. Michelle Rosowsky, a parent of two children said that while she thinks teachers are amazing, “as of last week, I’m totally disillusioned.”

Another parent, Gwen Bruns said she was concerned for the common good and said that she is a staunch supporter of schools. Her family moved here in 2011, mainly for the school system. “I am stunned that the SBEA has chosen to strike, “Bruns said, “a strike is a divisive tactic that only causes ill will.” Bruns also mentioned rising health care costs across the nation as did several other South Burlington residents. Another resident said that no matter how good someone is at their job, many people are facing forced lay offs and stagnant wages and asked teachers to think about the economic realities their fellow citizens face as well as what concessions they’d be willing to make in their contract.

Others in attendance cautioned about the lasting impact of the strike on the community as a whole. Sarah Weber, who has had four children go through the school system, reminded the room that strikes in neighboring communities have caused lasting damage. “Resist the urge to take things personally and keep emotions in check so the community emerges as whole as possible,” Weber said. Tim Wile, the director of guidance at SBHS said that he was reminded, standing before the school board, what caring individuals they all are. He stressed the importance of relationships, between students, teachers, and families. Wile said relationships are what need to be prioritized throughout the process and and that South Burlington has a lot of learning to do from other communities. “Without a commitment to resolve this, we’re failing in our relationships,” Wile said.

Co-curriculars resume

Oct. 16, Young re-instated student activities, including sports, effective Friday, October 17. In a statement, Young said, “Academic days of instruction will be made up, yet the events within the co-curricular schedule will not. Many of these programs are approaching culmination, and I do not want these important experiences to be lost.” Programs were facilitated by non-union coaches and volunteers.

Negotiations stall, mediation begins

Negotiations took place Oct. 16, and continued Oct. 17, as both parties met again at the middle school to try to reach an agreement. On Friday, day four of the teachers’ strike, after five hours of discussion, the parties announced that they would bring in a mediator and resume conversations Saturday, Oct. 18.

Agreement is reached

Saturday night, at 10 p.m., McNeil announced that after 29 hours of negotiation and mediation, the SBEA and board had reached a “tentative” agreement. Details of the agreement were not made public until both the association and the board had an opportunity to ratify the terms. The statement also indicated that classes would resume effective Monday Oct. 20.

Contract ratified

The three year contract which will end June 30, 2017, was ratified Monday, Oct. 20.