Thursday September 21, 2017
Since the South Burlington School Board unanimously declared imposition of terms of employment August 29 on the SBEA, numerous meetings and press conferences have taken place where both parties have reiterated their positions. During the last two school board meetings, members addressed frequently asked questions and posted regular updates to their Facebook page and website. The SBEA has responded via press releases, and they organized an event for parents on the evening of September 11 at Tuttle Middle School to explain their concerns regarding the imposed terms.
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 decision to impose terms and conditions of employment for July 1, 2017-June 30, 2018 on the teachers. 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.
The chief areas of contention for the SBEA are the board terms on salary and health insurance cost-sharing. The release from September 6 states that “the board obliterated the salary schedule, ending 50 years of predictability and stability for teachers and the district. Salary schedules ensure that women are paid the same as men and that teachers with similar education, experience, and loyalty to the district are compensated the same. On health insurance, the board went far beyond what even Governor Phil Scott proposed.”
At the September 13 meeting board members answered a request to respond to the latest press release from the SBEA. Board members took turns addressing the issues of healthcare, salary, and impasse. Bridget Burkhardt reiterated that the salary grid is not going away and that over the years, about a dozen changes have been made to the grid, but it has reached a point where there are serious structural flaws that have increased the gap between the lowest and highest paid teachers. Burkhardt said that the SBEA’s claims of gender inequity under the proposed system are unfounded, and the statement that the erosion of a 50 year salary structure system created a lack of incentive for teachers to remain in South Burlington, was “insulting to the community that supports their teachers.”
In terms of the salary structure, Bridget Burkhardt clarified that there will still be steps in the salary grid system and that it is not radically changing. Under the imposed terms, teachers will receive an average salary increase of $1,679 in FY 2018, with more money going to the junior teachers. It is the board’s hope that this will help address the growing pay gap between junior and senior teachers. In the method being proposed by the board, South Burlington’s senior teachers will continue to be the most highly compensated in the state.
In terms of health care, under the board proposal, teachers would pay the same dollar amount in premium and average out-of-pocket expenses in each of the next two school years compared to what they paid in 2017. This means that teachers would be able to transition to the benchmark Gold CDHP plan as of January 1, 2018 without any increase in cost. The district would pay the balance of premium cost and out-of-pocket expenses, paid through an employer-funded Health Reimbursement Arrangement (HRA). The district has also offered to match employees contributions to a Health Savings Account (HSA) should an employee choose this option rather than an HRA. Fitzgerald noted the fact that healthcare costs will continue to rise and in the district’s proposal, teachers’ costs will be held steady.
Board member Steve Wisloski introduced his remarks regarding the timing of their imposition by reflecting on the SBEA’s September 11 information session. Wisloski told the teachers that they are valued and wanted to keep that context “front and center in conversations.” Wisloski stressed that the board wanted to have a contract in place prior to the beginning of the school year, but he realized during their negotiation session August 21, this wasn’t likely to occur. Wisloski, who has a background in collective bargaining, said that during the ten hour session, the movement by the SBEA was “microscopic.” Wisloski added, “The fact finders report is public, the board’s position is public in detail, what is conspicuously absent is the SBEA’s final offer.” Wisloski invited the SBEA, once again, to reveal their final offer from mediation and said that if they didn’t do so within two days, the board would, since the public has made several requests for that information.
Just hours after the adjournment of the board meeting SBEA spokesperson Noah Everitt posted on the South Burlington Educators Association Facebook page that: “After Monday’s community forum, we made the decision to publicly disclose our last offer; not our best, that can only happen at the table. It was the belief of the SBEA that this would not be the last offer and the SBEA intends that it will not. At the time the board left the table, progress was being made. The negotiating team proposed 3.44 percent new money (step and increase to the base), 1.27 percent from the Board’s last position. We believe that this difference can be negotiated. For health insurance, our last offer was 17 percent of the premium co-pay for the teachers while the board is at 23 percent. Governor Scott’s health care recommendation sits squarely in the middle at 20 percent. We believe that this difference can be negotiated.”
Two days after the September 13 meeting, the school board issued a press release outlining, in further detail, the SBEA’s final offer in mediation. In its last proposal at mediation, the SBEA sought an increase in salaries for the current year of approximately $650,000. This is $240,000 more than the amount the board is providing in its imposed terms. The SBEA also sought an additional 3.8 percent salary increase in the second year, or $750,000.
The SBEA’s final proposal regarding health insurance provided that teachers pay 17 percent of premium costs, as noted by Everitt and the first and last 5 percent of out-of-pocket costs (co-pays and deductibles). “This health insurance cost-sharing proposal would have increased teachers’ disposable income this year by .4 percent to .5 percent while depriving the district of between $79,000 and $90,000 in savings needed to offset the reduction in its budget due to Act 85. The SBEA’s proposals have been contrary to the goals of Act 85: to return savings to property tax payers as a result of lower-cost plans,” the board wrote.
The board also makes note of the mediation session that took place between the parties August 21 where, the board notes, the SBEA started the day with a two-year proposal for a 3.54 percent salary increase in year 1 and 3.9 percent increase in year 2. “After ten hours, and in response to the board’s final offer, the SBEA’s two-year proposal stood at 3.44% in year 1 and 3.8% in year 2, a decrease of only 1/10th of a percent per year,” the release states.
Fitzgerald noted that the school board’s discussion September 13 was meant to provide clarifications on a collective perception around negotiations. Fitzgerald said that the board had a lot of contract articles that they took off the table during negotiations and they are putting $410,000 of taxpayer money into salaries in addition to keeping health insurance costs to teachers stable despite double digit premium increases being forecast. The board continued to make it clear they are ready to negotiate for next year’s contract whenever the SBEA wants to meet. However, the SBEA noted in their September 6 announcement that they, “will not begin negotiating for next year until the board agrees to return to the table for this year.”
SBEA spokesperson Noah Everitt, who was present at the meeting, said that he was trying his best to keep his emotions in check and that there’s nothing more the teachers want than a settled contract.
When the meeting was opened to public comment, resident and retired educator Lynn Vera expressed her concern regarding the imposition. “An imposition is just a kick in the knees,” Vera said, “it will be hard to recover from and leaves a lot unsaid and unfixed.”
Fitzgerald concluded that the issue is multifaceted and that the budget already has initial concerns around it pertaining to Act 85 as well as the Governor’s guidance around level budgets. She conceded that this year is sure to be another challenging budget season.
SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent