Thursday October 05, 2017
A looming teachers strike scheduled by the South Burlington Educators’ Association (SBEA) to begin Wednesday, October 4, was averted in a last minute, overnight settlement. The tentative agreement ends a contentious negotiation process that spanned more than a dozen meetings over nearly as many months. The SBEA and the South Burlington School Board concluded their bargaining session at 2 a.m., Wednesday, October 4, after marathon talks regarding health care and salaries. Ratification of the contract is the next step. Full details about the terms of the contract were not available when The Other Paper went to press early Wednesday morning.
Students and families fretted through the early part of the week, making emergency childcare plans and wondering if school would be in session Wednesday. In preparation for the possibility that there would be no school, Superintendent David Young sent a message to parents and guardians Tuesday afternoon. He advised that if a strike occurred, afterschool programs would be closed, and that varsity sports would continue as scheduled, but all other extra-curricular activities would be cancelled.
Tuesday, October 3, families went to bed not knowing the outcome of the negotiations. A message on the district website was updated periodically throughout the night, with a final notice from Young that said, “I’m happy to report that an agreement was reached between the South Burlington School Board and the South Burlington Educators’ Association. Therefore, school and all extracurricular activities will continue today, Wednesday, October 4, as usual.” An email with the same message went out at 6 a.m.
A news release issued by the district just before 3 a.m. states, “At 2 a.m. on October 4, the South Burlington Educators’ Association (SBEA) and the South Burlington School Board successfully concluded negotiations for a two-year collective bargaining agreement (for FY18 and 19). The terms of the tentative agreement will be disclosed after the SBEA membership has ratified those terms. ‘We are pleased to have reached a reasonable settlement that averts a strike,’ Board Chair Elizabeth Fitzgerald said. ‘With the budget pressures the District is facing, we believe the agreement is in the best interest of the students, the community, and the teachers.’”
Noah Everitt, on behalf of the teachers’ union released a statement early Wednesday. He said, “The members of the SBEA are thrilled to be able to continue the school year, and lament the disruption caused by imposition. Both parties worked until the early hours of the morning, and committed to staying until the process was completed. We have worked to a tentative agreement and look forward to a ratification meeting later in the week. We appreciate the support of our members and of the community.”
What Led to The Strike Vote?
The road to the possible strike and this eleventh hour resolution has been a tumultuous one for the community. After meeting 12 times over ten months, including a ten-hour mediation session at the end of August, the South Burlington School Board made the unanimous decision to impose terms and conditions of their last offer of employment for a one-year term July 1, 2017-June 30, 2018. The imposed contract, according to the school board, included average salary increases of $1,679, with health care costs remaining the same or lower than last year. The SBEA responded a week later via a press conference announcing that the teachers were rejecting the board’s offer, asking them to rescind their decision to impose terms, and requesting they return to the bargaining table until a contract settlement could be reached. They opposed the board’s proposal to change the increases in the salary grid from a percentage based calculation to a computation based on actual dollar figures. The SBEA also rejected the board’s method of calculating the teacher contributions to health care.
The two parties met again the evening of Thursday, September 28, in an eight-hour session that went until 1 a.m., when the SBEA ended the conversation. The next afternoon, the SBEA took a strike vote and decided to walk off the job Wednesday, October 4, if an agreement could not be reached by then. Teachers went on strike for the first time in district history in October of 2014.
The chief areas of contention for the SBEA were the board terms on salary and health insurance cost-sharing. The board’s offer at the end of the September 28 session was 2.17 percent new money in FY 18 and 2.30 percent new money in FY 19 for a total increase of 4.47 percent. The base to top salary range in FY 18 was set at $45,418-$91,288. For FY 19 the figures ranged from $45,790-$92,037. As for healthcare premiums, FY 18 was set at a 77/23 split (district/employees) based on dollar amounts, and in FY 19, an 80/20 split with a return to percentage based figures.
After the strike vote was announced, the board released a statement. Board Chair Elizabeth Fitzgerald wrote, “We are disappointed that the SBEA has decided to take this step. Rather than disrupting the school year for our students and parents, the union should reconsider the concessions the board made last night and return to the table and get serious about negotiating a two year agreement.” The board noted that they addressed the SBEA’s two primary concerns with their latest offer, the indexed salary schedule and health care.
The SBEA and board both actively disseminated information via social media, posting information for the public on their respective Facebook pages. Sunday, October 1, the SBEA wrote that they had reached out to mediators as well as the school board to schedule another bargaining session prior to October 4. Although the SBEA would not release what their proposal involved in the September 28 negotiations, they wrote that “Both parties are now within one percent of each other in their proposals. The SBEA’s offer is below most settlements in the region for teacher compensation packages.”
The board contends that after last year’s failed budget votes, the SBEA should be looking at local circumstances, not surrounding districts when negotiating. Board member Martin LaLonde reiterated the budget pressure the district is facing now and in the years to come as the result of Act 85 calling for the “claw-back” of $468,000, as well as lost revenue from the community library move from the rented high school space to the University Mall.
Strike Averted, School in Session
With the strike averted, parents’ frustration and concern about emergency childcare plans and the unexpected professional and financial ramifications of taking time off from work have been allayed. Students’ anxiety about making up missed school days, extra-curricular activities and for seniors, the timely processing of college applications, can be set aside. At the high school, Homecoming activities will go on as planned this weekend, October 6-7.
With yet another crisis behind it, South Burlington now faces the task of finding its way past the disruption and divisiveness that has gripped the community.