The Burlington teachers’ union and school board failed to reach a contract agreement after nearly a year of discussion. The school board responded by voting to impose a contract on Thursday, Sept. 15.
This is the first time a contract has been imposed in Burlington history, according to Burlington Education Association President (BEA) Fran Brock.
A packed crowd of dozens of educators and community members crammed into the Burlington School District offices in Burlington on Thursday night for the board’s discussion and vote. Brian Cina was the only school board member to oppose the motion. Member Kathy Olwell abstained from voting.
“Just because you have the right to do something doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do,” Cina said of his decision.
The atmosphere was heated and emotional as board members shared thoughts on negotiations. Teachers filled the room and relayed updates to those who stood out in the hallway.
School board members called into question the demands of the union, while continually repeating that they had respect for Burlington teachers. The board stressed that meeting the union’s demands would cause too much financial strain on the district and city residents.
Anne Judson was direct with her comments regarding salary increases, drawing dismay from the crowd of teachers.
“I also don’t think it’s the money you guys care about, because you’re teachers,” Judson said. “How could you be teachers if you care about money.”
School Board Chair Mark Porter ended the comment period by repeatedly calling out the union for attacking him. He said the union had been “bullying” him by pointing out his lack of a child. Porter said the decision was not easy and twice told the teachers, “I’m not the ogre you think I am.”
Brock feels that the harassment has been taking place on a different end, blaming Porter for a lack of movement in the negotiations process.
“[Porter] has been on this crusade […] to impose a contract,” Brock said. “We barely started negotiating and he announced that he wants to impose.”
She called out the board for the way they have been operating.
“The disrespect for teachers is a disrespect for students and a disrespect for the community,” Brock said. “The school board’s bullying and it’s not pretty.”
District teachers have been wearing green BEA shirts and buttons with the message “Fair Contract Now!” this past week as part of a ramped-up effort to raise awareness.
The BEA made a final offer on Wednesday, Sept. 14 to accept the recommendations of the fact-finder report, including the salary increase of 3.25 percent.
The Burlington School Board has continually argued that the BEA’s proposed salary increase would prompt additional cuts and would not be affordable for the district. During the Thursday, Sept. 15 meeting, the board repeatedly said the BEA’s proposal would require budget cuts of around $400,000.
Brock disagrees with the board’s claim, citing a lack of financial evidence.
“There is still money in the district,” she said. “The board has just made the decision to not put it into direct services.”
The union president pointed out the lack of a detailed budget by the school board.
“They are somehow making it our fault that more things would have to be cut by increasing compensation,” she said.
The BEA and the school board face other contract issue disputes. The BEA opposes the school board’s proposal to reduce paid sick leave and eliminate a requirement to compensate teachers with unused sick time upon retirement. In addition, the BEA is also against the board’s proposal to increase healthcare contributions from 15 to 19 percent and eliminate graduate course reimbursement.
The imposed contract ends negotiations and the collective bargaining process. The school board improved on its salary increase to 2.75 percent, removed experimental living contract language and now requires teachers to obtain permission from the superintendent to use personal leave days. The district is now allocating $80,000 for graduate course reimbursements, and requiring superintendent approval. Additionally, teachers must pay a one percent increase in health insurance contributions and the superintendent can determine initial salaries.
The two parties began negotiating the one-year contract last year, which expired on Aug. 31.
On June 30, the two organizations held a fact-finding hearing, an information session conducted with the purpose of compiling an analytic report of the overall situation. The report was made public on Aug. 25 and recommended a salary increase of 3.25 percent.
“A fair and reasonable new money salary increase lies somewhere between the Association’s [4.6%] proposal and the District’s offer of [2%],” the fact-finding report states. “A salary increase of 3.25% would preserve the relative standing of Burlington teachers while those negotiations are ongoing, without placing an unreasonable financial burden on the District in the next year. ”
The document stated that the salary increase must be comparable to other school districts in the county, in order to maintain a level of competition. All other school district in Chittenden County, with the exception of Winooski, receive average salary increases of around 3.25 percent, according to the report.
Brock considers maintaining a competitive increase necessary for the health of the district.
“We are looking to be competitive with other area schools,” Brock said. “We’ve already lost people.”
She said the schools would significantly weaken without good staff.
“If Burlington cannot be competitive with the area schools nobody’s going to want to apply to teach here. There’s a whole group of students whose parents will move them out of Burlington schools and that will be detrimental to the education of everybody in the district,” Brock said.
According to Vermont law, if no contract settlement has been reached within twenty days after the Factfinder’s report is made public, the school board is authorized to declare an end to negotiations and impose its final offer as policy to govern employment until Aug. 31, 2017. If no contract settlement has been reached within twenty days after the Fact-finder’s report is made public the teachers union may legally vote to strike.
Brock explained the board’s frustration in an email.
“We are asked to trust the Board and the Administration, but that is hard to do when they won’t be transparent with the district’s budget, she wrote. “Our frustration is less about the money, however, it is the disrespectful and dismissive actions of the Board toward teachers, students and the community as demonstrated by constant cuts to direct student services over the past three years, including the libraries, and creating an economic climate that will further erode Burlington’s ability to attract and retain excellent teachers.”
Porter had not responded to a request for comment from the Register before the publication deadline.
This article first appeared in print on Sept. 19.