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Burlington School Board And Teachers’ Union Weigh In On Contract Tensions

Emily Alfin Johnson
VPR file
Edmunds Elementary School and Middle School in Burlington. After a year of unsucessful contract talks, the Burlington School Board has imposed working conditions on teachers, which the teachers' union has rejected.

After a year of unsuccessful contract talks, the Burlington School Board has moved to impose working conditions on teachers without their approval. The teachers' union has rejected that move, but the school board maintains it simply doesn't have the money to agree to the teachers' proposal.

Fran Brock, the president of the Burlington Education Association, spoke to VPR on Wednesday about where the union stands on the imposed working conditions. And on Thursday, Liz Curry, Burlington School Board Commissioner, shared her thoughts.

On the main sticking points

The union

“The key to it is the whole idea of an imposition, it's a rarely used tactic,” says Brock. “It is insulting. It's very demeaning. It’s autocratic.”

“There was no reason for them to impose working conditions on us. We did give them another offer, we were willing to take what the fact finder’s report said and instead they decided to impose [working conditions].”

The school board

“I think there's two things: During the negotiation process we ended up feeling like we weren't seeing the BEA come forth with proposals,” Curry explains, “and we were in [the] position essentially of negotiating against ourselves. And then when we finally made some movement towards the end, we continued to be far apart on our financial capacity to support the BEA’s request.”

“But the real catalyst was that the BEA filed a grievance about the expired contract, which under Vermont law, the district would have had to continue honoring the language in the contract throughout the grievance,” says Curry. “And the longer the expired contract is in effect, it's much more difficult to rollback that language. And this was purely about the financial exposure of the district.”

The final teacher’s salary increase proposal from both sides differed by less than one percentage point. Both the union and the school board say there are bigger issues at play.

The union

“The bigger issue is just the fact that they imposed working conditions and have walked away from the negotiation table,” says Brock. “That's true, when you look at just the number at this point we're not that far for the salary piece. There are some other pieces that are being posed.”

“They're imposing some new rules with tuition reimbursement,” Brock explains. “Teachers need tuition reimbursement because in order to stay licensed they have to take courses in their subject area and in their grade level,” Brock says. “And by reducing that … under this plan, there may be about a maximum of 44 teachers who might be able to take advantage of the tuition reimbursement. And adding into it that they would have to pay back all or a portion of it if they leave before three years. It's very insulting. It’s almost indentured servitude and we're just not willing to accept that.”

The school board

“It wasn't our hope, our preference or desire to create an acrimonious situation,” Curry says. “It was about the fact that there really isn't any more money to put on the table. So the financial exposure to the district of the half a percent and continuing to negotiate and having the grievance out there and risking another $400,000 meant that we were just in a situation where we couldn't continue to have that exposure.”

“We've faced $4.5 million in federal and local cuts over the last three years,” says Curry. “And we've really had to sadly gut much of what makes classes enriched and makes kids succeed. And that's been very painful for the community.”

Credit Emily Alfin Johnson / VPR
A sign outside a Burlington home that reads, "Support Your Teachers". After a year of unsuccessful contract talks, the Burlington School Board imposed working conditions which the Burlington Education Association has rejected.

On the role increased health insurance costs played

The union

“This was supposed be a one-year contract — a bridging contract, because we need to go back into negotiations as every district in the state does,” Brock explains. “There's new numbers coming out for health care costs and that has to be renegotiated in every contract.”

The school board

The union has maintained that when rising healthcare costs and changes to tuition reimbursement, the pay increases don't amount to much for some teachers. Curry says she understands their frustration.

“All the teachers will be getting an increase,” says Curry. “You know, I think we understand that the teachers are severely disappointed. And I understand Fran Brock, the president of the BEA use the word insulted, and we feel very badly about that. We just would ask that there be some perspective on the need for sustainable budgeting during a protracted period of funding losses.”

Listen to BEA president Fran Brock's full conversation with VPR's Alex Keefe.

On the lack of a detailed, line-item budget

The union

“Neither the teachers, nor the community have seen clear, itemized detail yet for the school district,” says Brock. “The budgets that they've released have been sort of generalizations that there's money being spent for consultants, for legal fees, for ‘other’ and we don't know what any of that is. Show us in very detailed specifics why there's no money.”

The school board

Curry says a more detailed budget will be released next week.

“It's been a frustrating conversation,” Curry says, “because if people were to go back and look over the past three years at the budgets that have been presented to the public they're generally all the same amount of detail.”

“Looking at the budget now and trying to second guess it,” she says, “really does the voters a disservice because there's a lot of constituencies out there that would like to see money go for a lot of things but we can't ... govern with line-item budgeting. We can't govern with advocacy budgeting.”

“So we will release more detail,” Curry says, “we’re not hiding anything. They want to feel confident that they're putting out good numbers and that takes time.”

On the possibility of a strike

The union

“We do not want to have an imposed contract. It's a bad precedent, it's a very common union-busting tactic,” Brock says. “And so we just cannot accept anything that comes in under this imposition.”

So what’s next?

“We would like for the board to come back to the table and negotiate in good faith,” says Brock. “I know what [Mark Porter, School Board chairman,] says — he has one vote on the school board — there are 11 other people and they each have one vote and they can all vote the way they individually think is appropriate.”

Brock says that while they will continue to try and push for negotiations, the possibility of a strike is not off the table.

“Nothing's off the table. By law, they were allowed to impose [working conditions]. Just because you can doesn't mean you must,” says Brock. “Teachers, we are now at a point where we can strike. Again, just because we can, doesn't mean that we must do it. It certainly is something we have to take under consideration though if the board continues to stick to its guns.”

The school board

“You know, we [have] had no invitation from the BEA to come back to the table,” says Curry. “Unfortunately, there have been statements in the press that have been accusatory of us for not going back to the table, but we have not heard an invitation from the BEA. You know, we can return to the table and we can certainly have more discussion, but we still have the same amount of money.”

Annie Russell was VPR's Deputy News Director. She came to VPR from NPR's Weekends on All Things Considered and WNYC's On The Media. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School.
Alex was a reporter and host of VPR's local All Things Considered. He was also the co-host and co-creator of the VPR program Brave Little State.
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