BRISTOL — A Starksboro man would like Bristol-area school boards to be a little more transparent when negotiating teacher contracts, and he has filed a lawsuit that could be precedent-setting.
John Jefferies said in a complaint filed in court last week that the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union and Mount Abraham Union High School districts and their boards and committees have gone into executive session without cause during face-to-face and mediated meetings with representatives of the teachers’ union during contract negotiations.
“This is not an angry piece of litigation,” Jefferies, a former Robinson Elementary School and ANeSU board member himself, said in an interview. “I have great respect for these people and the work that they do.”
Section 313 of Vermont Open Meeting Law states that a public body may go into executive session only for “contracts, labor relations agreements with employees, arbitration, mediation, grievances, civil actions or prosecutions by the state, where premature general public knowledge would clearly place the state, municipality, other public body, or person involved at a substantial disadvantage.”
Jefferies believes the law intends for mediated, face-to-face negotiations to be held in the public eye. The “substantial disadvantage” portion of the law, he reasons, is applicable in a situation when board members spoke amongst themselves to agree upon offers and responses. But negotiation itself, which is mediated by a third party, does not reveal any part of the board’s or the union’s discussions that could put them at a disadvantage in the negotiations process, Jefferies believes. That direct negotiation, he says, should be open to the public and the taxpayers.
“Once a deal is struck between negotiators, it’s put on hold until it’s ratified,” Jefferies said. “Frequently this takes a month. Meanwhile, everything is secret … It’s our taxes and our kids but we don’t know anything about the contract until Town Meeting Day.… If the public (had time) to react, it would help the process.”
Jefferies also believes that citizens can play an important role simply by being present. He thinks that contract negotiations would be less contentious if the public was able to witness the offers and counter offers, and keep tabs on whether negotiators were acting in good faith.
“If knowledge is out there it will affect behavior,” he said. “And that, I think, is the point of Open Meeting Law.”
For Jefferies, the seed for the litigation was planted on Feb. 2, 2011, when he, along with 30 other Five Town Area citizens, went to an ANeSU board meeting. The occasion, he remembered, was an attempt between the teachers’ union and the school board to prevent imposing contracts after a contentious negotiations process. The teachers’ union and the school board were to be communicating through mediators; the citizens had been told they could come and sit in the room where they would hear the same comments and offers that the mediators heard from representatives from the union and the board.
“We were led to believe that we would be let in,” Jefferies said. But at the last minute, a school board representative met the group and said that the board had decided to go into executive session.
Jefferies recalled that someone with a smartphone pulled up Section 313 of Vermont Open Meeting Law.
The board rep was not swayed.
“Rather grumpily, we all went home,” Jefferies recalled with a laugh.
But Jefferies had trouble forgetting the incident. In the months that followed, he returned to the law and the incident several times. After informally consulting lawyers who agreed that his interpretation of the law held water, Jefferies at an August 2011 ANeSU board meeting requested that the board formally recognize that their invocation of Section 313 earlier in the year was incorrect, and to pledge that it would not happen again. Board members said at the time that no action would be taken until they had consulted their lawyer.
Months later, Jefferies followed up and was told the board had been advised that it didn’t have to take action. It had been customary for the school boards to go into executive session during teacher contract negotiations; they had never been challenged in court over the law.
SECRETARY OF STATE
Jefferies got in touch with Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, who had his attorney look into the matter. The attorney found no case law in the state related to executive sessions during teacher contract negotiations.
“The secretary of state refused to give an opinion, but he looked me in the eye and said, ‘It’d sure be nice to have some case law,’” Jefferies said.
So nearly two years after the incident — “Life gets in the way sometimes,” he explained — Jefferies filed his suit in Addison County Superior Court last Thursday. If his case prevails, it would likely set a precedent beyond the ANeSU school district and change how teacher contract negotiations are held across the state.
ANeSU Superintendent David Adams, who came to the ANeSU last July, said on Friday he had not yet reviewed the suit, but that he and the ANeSU board would discuss it at their next meeting, scheduled for March 20.
The lawsuit is likely to be expedited through the courts in accordance with Section 314 of Vermont Open Meeting Law.
Jefferies is representing himself and seeks no damages except for compensation for the cost of the suit if he prevails. He asks that the court grant declarations that:
• ANeSU and Mount Abe board negotiators, or their representatives, are in violation of the law in conducting such negotiations in executive session.
• Such meetings be legally posted, open to the public, and not held in executive session.
“There is no bad guy here,” Jefferies reiterated. “With the larger trend of transparency in the last decade or so, it seemed like a good time to proceed.
“I hope it can continue to be amicable. I have a tremendous amount of respect for those boards, and I believe that teachers’ unions have a place in this county. What I want is for citizens to be part of the process.”