After nearly nine hours of working with a neutral mediator regarding teacher salary and health care negotiations on April 17, the Board and the South Burlington Educator’s Association (SBEA) are still at odds at reaching an agreement.

The School Board declared impasse on teacher negotiations at its March 20 meeting following several negotiation sessions with the SBEA. The board then asked the SBEA to call in a mediator to facilitate negotiations. With no agreement made, the next step is to use a fact-finder, which issues a non-binding advisory report within 60 days – in this case, by June 30. 

The SBEA does not wish to strike, although historically it hasn’t been out of the question. Failed negotiations led to a teacher strike in 2014 and a declaration of one in 2017. The latter was averted last minute with an overnight settlement.

“After declaring impasse with the knowledge that the SBEA was preparing a counter proposal to their offer, board chair Elizabeth Fitzgerald declared that SBEA could choose a mediator. This was a clear indication that the board was not invested in the process,” Noah Everitt, co-president of the SBEA, told The Other Paper.

School Board Chair Elizabeth Fitzgerald, who has served the board for 15 years, tells it differently. 

“The Board made it clear to the SBEA that it was open to a counter proposal prior to the regularly-scheduled board meeting which occurred two days after the last round of negotiations and when impasse was declared, and prior to the mediation session which had been scheduled for April 17,” Fitzgerald said. “A full month passed without a counter proposal. In the meantime, the current contract calls for a fact-finding report (if needed) to be issued by June 30.  We also had met 10 times prior to mid-March with little progress being made toward settlement. Compliance with the contract requires that a fact-finding hearing occur by May 1.”

There is still a large disparity around healthcare. Everitt explained that the current high deductible healthcare plan has not been properly administered, as some members have had high out-of-pocket expenses and have waited several months for reimbursement of covered expenses. Some have “stopped going to the doctor” altogether.

“We were able to solve something with the superintendent so that the district is loaning people money to cover their healthcare expenses from 2018,” Everitt continued. “People now owe the district money waiting for the reimbursement from the certified administrator. We’re now on our third company that does the certified administration.”

“Additionally, the board seems to be unable to make common sense updates to contract language to simplify the work we are doing. Examples including email notifications, (currently by letter only) and extending the amount of time a nursing mother can take to pump from 15 to 30 minutes,” Everitt said. “Surely these positions do not pose an undue threat or financial hardship on this board.” 

The school board has not made a proposal for changes to the current healthcare plan, Fitzgerald confirmed, as the board must be mindful of the budget approved by the taxpayers.

“The board’s last public proposal keeps premium share and out-of-pocket expenses for employees the same as the current year’s contract despite an 11.8 percent increase in premium cost,” she said. “There is a significant gap in salary proposals, and the total new money required to fund the terms of the SBEA’s current proposal is unsustainable to taxpayers.”

Following mediation, Everitt said that the board’s summary of the mediation at the April 17 school board meeting was “not a meaningful update” and had concerns about transparency. 

“The SBEA encourages the town to consider its education,” he said. “South Burlington schools are some of the best in the state and nation, and yet our board seems determined that every negotiating cycle end with bitterness and conflict.”

Fitzgerald explained that certain details must be withheld until further notice.

“The mediator asks that both parties keep specifics of the mediation process confidential,” Fitzgerald responded when The Other Paper asked about the update. “The board did report at our meeting on Wednesday (immediately following mediation) that mediation had occurred over a nine-hour period and that a settlement had not been reached. We hope that a fact-finder, who is acceptable to the SBEA will be identified soon and a hearing scheduled to comply with the current contract.”

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