Thursday October 19, 2017
“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn.” These words, credited to founding father Benjamin Franklin, begin the text of a petition on change.org that looks to eliminate education strikes and imposed contracts in Vermont. Initiated by South Burlington residents Sheramy Tsai and Gwen Bruns, as of Tuesday’s press time, the petition has a total of 449 signatures and reads, “The passing of this act would serve to protect teachers, parents, taxpayers, and most importantly, our children.”
In the wake of ongoing negotiations, discord, and an eleventh hour settlement between the South Burlington School Board and the South Burlington Educators’ Association (SBEA), many in the community have expressed relief over the narrowly averted strike. Even though there is now a ratified contract, the culmination of 11 months of mediation, impasse, imposition, and the threat of strike has reignited the debate over whether or not to ban teacher strikes as well as board imposition of contract terms. Tsai and Bruns did more than think about the issue, they took action.
“I began talking with other parents and community members who were very upset at the prospect of another strike. South Burlington has been through a lot in the last few years and the tension is still palpable. When communities have been through major events, people tend to become polarized, and that has happened to a degree in South Burlington. Given that we live in such a small community and given the current climate, many people expressed concern about the impending strike, but expressed equal concern about speaking vocally around this issue for fear of being ostracized by other community members,” said Tsai.
A former political science major, Tsai began researching past proposed legislation on the topic. “I personally spoke with Representative Kurt Wright. I also had email correspondence with Senator Joe Benning. To fully understand the issue, I also had discussions with [Representatives] Anne Pugh, Helen Head, and Maida Townsend. I educated myself on the past proposed legislation, the barriers it faced, the reasons why our representatives voted the way they did, and ultimately, why the legislation failed.”
In 2015, The Vermont House of Representatives rejected a bill that would eliminate teacher strikes and school board imposed contracts. The bill H.76, sponsored by Representative Kurt Wright (R-Chittenden, 6-1), was lobbied against by the Vermont National Education Association and failed by a narrow margin. Vermont is the only New England state that allows teachers to strike.
Representative Wright said, “We came within one vote of passing this needed reform of the collective bargaining process in 2015. I am hopeful that with the efforts of Sheramy and other concerned citizens we can get this legislation taken up, debated, and hopefully on the Governor’s desk in 2017. Sometimes, this is exactly what it takes for legislators to understand the need to finally take action and end this divisive and disruptive system of strikes and imposed contracts that leave long lasting scars in the community.”
Tsai says, “After gathering all of the information, I felt that it was important to do something. For me, it’s imperative to teach my children that there are avenues for our thoughts, opinions, and ideas. I believe that there are ways to respectfully participate and that we should exercise our democracy.”
Beyond looking at the issue in a broader political view, Tsai had personal experience as well. “During the time of the 2014 strike in South Burlington, I had children in first and third grade. I also had three additional children under the age of five at home. The 2014 strike was stressful on our lives. My husband is a physician and I was a nurse manager, both working more than full-time. We had a rather new baby at the time. The strike caused us to juggle additional childcare. Additionally, as my son was in a brand new school (RMCS), he was still adjusting to first grade. The strike set him back socially/emotionally for a bit, as it was only October.”
She says, “Fast forward to 2017, and Burlington and South Burlington are in the same position once again. Now, four of our five children are in South Burlington schools. As a former resident of the Boston area, I had not experienced strikes. I began to wonder how the two most affluent and educated areas in the state of Vermont were continuously facing the same situation.”
Tsai wrote the text for the change.org petition, working closely in collaboration with Bruns. The two disagree with any claim that the petition is anti-union or anti-school board. Bruns remarks, “This is about what’s best for our communities in Vermont. The current status quo perpetuates stodgy rhetoric and encourages ‘sides’ thereby pulling communities apart at the seams without any real progress. We must do better and we can do better.”
Tsai adds, “As someone incredibly involved in the schools, I support my teachers tremendously. This is an answer to those who were upset about the imposed contract as well as those who were upset about the strike.”
This dual perspective is what Tsai says is the heart of the petition – calling for elimination of both imposed contracts and strikes. “The issue that occurred in South Burlington is not necessarily the fault of the board or the teachers, it’s a system malfunction. I truly believe this legislation will address this system problem.” She adds, “By removing both of these measures, it equals the playing field for both parties. We need to fix this problem with a positive approach that looks at the needs of both sides of the table.”
“Throughout the discussions leading up to the strike,” notes Tsai, “The union continued to assert that the strike vote occurred as a direct result of the imposed contract. In fact, an October 1 statement by the SBEA read, ‘Why are we here? Because...Imposition is not an act of good faith. The current crisis has been caused by imposition.’” She says these statements only solidified her belief that the union felt contract imposition was harmful, she adds, “By removing the school board’s ability to impose contracts, as well as by removing the union’s ability to strike, we believe that we are protecting the children’s right to uninterrupted education.”
Some in the community are not fans of the change.org petition. Those in opposition believe that this legislation would reduce the collective bargaining power of the teachers’ union, and could lead to the erosion of other union rights.
Noah Everitt, union spokesperson for the South Burlington Educator’s Association, says the issue of settling contracts through collective bargaining is sometimes contentious, but in the overwhelming majority of instances, successful. He does not think the petition goes far enough to address how collective bargaining disputes will ultimately be resolved. “Lack of a final resolution can be just as problematic, as it can lead to a longer lasting erosion of trust and declining working and learning environments. The actions of imposition by school boards and strikes by teachers represent a final method of ending these disputes when they cannot be resolved at the table. Once we have eliminated imposition and strike, what method will ensure a reasonable conclusion to a stalled negotiation cycle?” he queried. “Ultimately, establishing a clear and balanced approach that addresses that question will be in the best interests of students, teachers, and our community,” concluded Everitt.
Tsai writes, “Some have asserted that strikes are so rare that we should not take them on. I would assert that the ramifications of strikes and threatened strikes impact a community deeply and that we can do better in this wonderful place we call home.” She adds, “I also would like to say that it’s hard to understand why our elected officials have not come to a resolution on this matter. Each one whom I spoke with reiterated their beliefs that strikes and imposed contracts are harmful to our community. My hope is that they will take action on this in the upcoming year.”
As of now, Representative Wright reports that his bill, H.98, titled “An act relating to the elimination of strikes and imposed terms in connection with collective bargaining for teachers’ and school administrators’ contracts and the formation of a task force,” is ‘on the wall’ in the House Education committee. It can be taken up at anytime but is up to the discretion of the chair and the committee. Senator Joe Benning is sponsoring the same legislation in the Senate this year.
South Burlington Representative, and member of the South Burlington School Board, Martin LaLonde, who recently opposed a bill that would have taken collective bargaining over health insurance away from local school boards, says he remains open minded about whether banning strikes and impositions is appropriate. Noting that the process should be “student-centered, collaborative, evidence-based, flexible, transparent, and timely,” LaLonde adds, “I do think that we need to change how collective bargaining is done. I am working on a bill to modify some of the time frames and guidelines for collecting bargaining and will be introducing that in January. I do not intend for that bill to ban strikes and impositions.”
Tsi, along with a group of concerned parents, will hand deliver the petition in December or January to Montpelier.
SOURCE: Carole Vasta Folley, The Other Paper