Thursday October 31, 2013
The South Burlington Educator’s Association (SBEA) presented their position publicly on the chilly morning of October 28 when SBEA members and their supporters staged an “informational picket” in front of South Burlington High School. The protest came as teachers entered their fourth month without a contract, the only teachers in Chittenden County working without a settlement.
The picketers’ signs read “Support Your Teachers”, “Settle Now,” “We Are The Union,” and “Bargain With Us.” The SBEA has blamed the halt in contract negotiations on the Board’s attorney, Steven Stitzel, saying that he is “no stranger to making negotiations more difficult, more time consuming…less productive…and significantly more expensive.” According to the SBEA, “hired gun attorney” Stitzel guided the Bennington School Board “into refusing to reach a deal for more than 500 days, leading to a strike.” The path being used by the SBEA in pursuing a new collective bargaining agreement with the Board is not an unfamiliar one. An attorney-focused strategy in 2011 led to the now-expired 2011-2013 agreement. At that time, Vermont-National Education Association (VT-NEA) Executive Director Joel Cook told former Board Chair Richard Cassidy (an attorney) that Cassidy’s law firm, Hoff Curtis, had described itself on its website as “one of the few law firms in Vermont that represents labor unions.” “To me,” Cook wrote in an e-mail, “sitting atop one of the other ‘law firms’ that represents labor unions, the immediate future appears to be one that includes labor unions picketing the offices of Phil Hoff and Dave Curtis, and, frankly, I don’t want that to happen.”
After receiving Cook’s e-mail, Cassidy consulted the School District’s legal counsel. Based on the legal advice he received concerning conflicts of interest, Cassidy immediately withdrew from any further voting or discussion regarding the imposition of a contract on South Burlington’s educators.
With Cassidy on the sidelines, the Board and the SBEA reached tentative agreement on March 7, and the Board formally ratified that pact on March 16.
Lawyer issues aside, where do the SBEA and the Board stand on the main contract issues?
The SBEA says that they and the Board are not “terribly far apart” on salary, health insurance, and professional development. Regarding salary, however, the SBEA says that the Board has proposed a change in the salary schedule that would “penalize teachers as they gain new skills and experience.” The Board denies that its proposal constitutes a penalty. “Rather,” says the Board, “the proposal provides a larger boost to those junior teachers who are in the process of gaining additional experience and education, while still providing over 50% of the total budget increase for teachers’ salaries to [the] most experienced and highly educated teachers.”
Concerning health insurance, the SBEA has balked at the Board’s wanting the authority to decide a health insurance carrier should the Vermont Education Health Initiative (VEHI) disappear as a result of the Affordable Care Act. VEHI is a large, non-profit purchaser of health care plans for Vermont’s school employees. The Board counters that remaining with VEHI does “not allow for flexibility to consider other, [possibly more favorable] health insurance options.” Despite that statement, the Board notes that VEHI and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont recently filed for a FY15 health contribution rate renewal of 4.5% with the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation (DFR), and that “initial indications from the DFR make them feel that school districts may safely use it in preliminary budget deliberations.” The Board will consider this new information in the continued health insurance negotiations.
On professional development, the SBEA contends that the Board “has proposed a hard cap on funds instead of maintaining the [current] three credit guarantee.” The Board admits that it has recommended a cap “at the average utilization rate for the past five years, or $85,000.” The Board’s rationale is that this rate “reflects the fact that 145 of the District’s 252 teachers have already advanced to the M+30 [master’s degree plus 30 credits] column in the salary schedule [and that only] 31 of the District’s teachers have not yet earned a master’s degree.”
The SBEA also believes that nurses and speech language pathologists who are nationally certified should be entitled to the same compensation as nationally board certified classroom teachers. The Board wants the study committee that was convened in February 2012 to present written findings to the Board by November 15 with answers to specific questions submitted to the committee a year ago. The Board asserts that the committee’s initial findings were insufficient for the Board to determine equivalency.
SOURCE: Bill Wargo, Correspondent