Board, SBEA and Residents Debate VLRB Decision

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Thursday March 29, 2012

During a contentious meeting, the South Burlington School Board, members of the district’s Educators’ Association and city residents debated the ruling issued by the Vermont Labor Relations Board (VLRB) on the unfair labor practice charge leveled by school directors.

In the ruling that was made public last week, the VLRB dismissed the School Board’s charge that the Vermont NEA and the SBEA entered into unfair practices by threatening School Board Chairman Richard Cassidy’s business interests, suggesting he had a conflict of interest as collaborative bargaining negotiations were implemented. The Board spent $75,811.50 in filing the charge with the VRLB. School Directors have a 30-day period to file an appeal of the VLRB’s decision.

During a 20-minute portion of the meeting, which took place during the Board’s regular schedule, Clerk Elizabeth Fitzgerald invited Board members to address the VLRB’s ruling. Julie Beatty, Martin LaLonde, Diane Bugbee and Cassidy took turns, expressing disappointment about the VRLB’s ruling. As School Directors read from prepared remarks, SBEA members Eric Stone and co-president Kathy Buley listened intently. At the heart of the controversy is an e-mail sent by Vermont NEA Executive Director Joel Cook, apparently threatening Cassidy’s career, forcing him out of negotiations between teachers and the School Board. The e-mail stated that Cassidy, an attorney, worked at a law firm that was one of the few in the Green Mountain State that worked with labor unions.

In February 2011, the School Board imposed working conditions on the district’s 200 teachers. In March, educators voted to strike, and at the end of that month, parties returned to the table without Cassidy and agreed on a new, three-year contact.

“I believe that the Board made the right decision to file an unfair labor practice against the NEA and SBEA,” read LaLonde. “This Board couldn’t allow this practice to go unchallenged. I don’t believe the threat was an acceptable tactic.”

As Bugbee read from her statement, she indicated she gave the decision a “great deal of thought” about joining in filing the unfair labor practice. She also indicated that all sides “need to ensure good faith prevails. Both parties need to get involved. People are depending on us and so are 2,400 young lives.”

Cassidy, who didn’t attend the meeting, but spoke via phone, said he didn’t participate in filing the unfair labor charge with the VLRB, but supported the Board’s efforts to do so. He also called on fellow Board members, teachers and SBEA members to work together, indicating he didn’t hold a grudge about the matter and believed School Directors didn’t as well.

Before opening the proceedings to audience comment, Fitzgerald read a statement from Steve Dale of the VT School Boards Association. Dale wanted to attend the SB School Board meeting, but couldn’t because he was at a hearing in Montpelier. “We appreciate your efforts [the School Board’s] to protect collective bargaining negotiations.”  The statement continued stating that there should be a push to change laws surrounding labor practices, but noted the difficulty of pursuing a change in statutes in a state that is “totally pro-labor”.

As Fitzgerald opened up comments to the audience, Stone of the SBEA stood, reading from a prepared statement. “The Board now has the answer it sought...the news released to the public is incendiary. I challenge the Board to accept the ruling of the VLRB and it’s time for wisdom to prevail.”

Showing the strong feelings this topic has engendered, Phil Soltau, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the SB School Board, addressed both parties. In a voice filled with emotion, Soltau called on both sides to act honorably and put aside their differences in an effort to provide quality education for students. “Where do we go from here? Both sides need to change. To the union, I say every action must be done with integrity. It’s a fact that didn’t happen. I thank you for the support when I ran for the Board. Tell the truth every time and all the time.”

At that point, Buley addressed Soltau, noting, “I take exception to that,” making reference to a perceived lack of integrity on the union’s part.

After addressing SBEA members at the meeting, Soltau turned to the Board. “Rich [Wise] was caught in a lie. . .  The VLRB ruled. They decided. . . So, where do we go from here?. . . Both sides, will you please grow up. Let’s find a way to heal.”

Then Buley spoke. “My integrity has been thrown into question. We had the livelihood of 200 teachers on our backs. For us, it’s our livelihood. It’s how we pay our bills and put our children through school.”

Buley went on to note she didn’t see Cook’s e-mail sent to Cassidy and didn’t consider the note to be threatening, she said. But she characterized statements made by then School Board member Agnes Clift to the public that the union intended to picket Board members’ places of employment and homes if a strike took place as false.

Buley said she drove to Tuttle Middle School, spoke with Clift and told her the SBEA had no intention of picketing, but she couldn’t promise that a Teamsters’ union wouldn’t march in front of a School Director’s house or job site. Clift’s School Board term ended after last year’s Town Meeting.

Superintendent David Young said information about the process was available on the District’s web site and that he had received an e-mail from the SBEA, asking that their news releases also be posted. At the meeting Young said he hadn’t yet responded to the request.

SOURCE: Gail Callahan, Correspondent