In break from tradition, ANeSU teacher negotiations now held in public
BRISTOL — Facing each other across long rows of tables six feet apart at Mount Abraham Union High School on Thursday evening, Addison Northeast Supervisory Union teachers and school board members negotiated terms for a new collective bargaining agreement.
Hard to miss was a NEAT TV tripod and camera between the rows of tables — an unusual sight at a teachers’ contract negotiation.
As is the general practice in Vermont school districts, these negotiations have been held in secret in past years. But, due in part to a Starksboro man’s lawsuit, the ANeSU board is now holding the talks in open session.
For the first time, community members could have a front row seat to the supervisory union’s negotiations with teachers, which include contentious issues like salaries, health insurance and working conditions.
Some are asking if this could be a precedent that other Vermont school districts will follow when they next engage in contract negotiations.
Superintendent Peter Burrows of the Addison Central Supervisory Union in Middlebury told the Independent that he would be open to considering public talks when the supervisory union negotiates a new contract with teachers in 2017, if the teachers’ union is also supportive of the idea.
“I think it’s something we would work with the association on,” Burrows said. “We’d discuss it if it came to the table.”
Members of the ANeSU teachers union and Burlington attorney Stephen Stitzel, who was hired to represent the school boards, appeared to share their views freely at Thursday’s contract negotiations in Bristol — even with the camera rolling and a couple members of the public present (see related story).
The change to an open meeting is largely the result of a 2013 lawsuit brought against the school by Starksboro resident John Jefferies.
Jefferies argued that the state’s open meetings laws, which permit bodies to go into secret executive session when public discussion would put them at a “substantial disadvantage,” only apply to the parties (in this case, the teachers and school board) caucusing amongst themselves.
In other words: the teachers — or school board members — could meet privately amongst themselves to discuss their strategies, but actual negotiations between the two parties must be done in public.
Jefferies told the Independent in 2013 that his suit was spurred by 2011 ANeSU teacher contract negotiations, when the school board barred the public from the talks by invoking executive session.
Jefferies said Friday that he was incensed that he was barred from the 2011 contract talks. He said that the Robinson Elementary School budget often becomes a topic of discussion at the Starksboro Town Meeting, but residents feel they have little input in the budget process.
“If we can’t have anything to say at town meeting because the (teachers’) contract is negotiated earlier, why can’t we have anything to say during the contract negotiations?” he asked.
The talks in 2011 were rancorous, and the two sides never did reach an agreement. Instead, the board imposed a contract on the teachers. Afterwards, Jefferies asked the board to admit it was wrong to hold the negotiations in secret and promise to have public negotiations in the future. The board didn’t budge. So in March 2013 he sued.
In November of that year, Vermont Superior Court Judge Robert A. Mello ruled in favor of the school board, arguing that since the contract negotiations that were the basis of the suit had ended, and there were no current negotiations, the court had no jurisdiction to issue a ruling.
But Jefferies said the ruling was actually a victory. That’s because Judge Mello didn’t reject Jefferies’ argument, and noted that the board can’t invoke executive session for every labor negotiation. Instead, that determination must be made on a case-by-case basis, and must explain how the board would be put in a disadvantageous position if the session were held in public.
This time around, the school board has not gone into executive session for discussions between the two parties. On Thursday evening, the board went into executive session midway though the meeting so the two sides separately could talk privately, but came back into public session after about 15 minutes.
Stitzel said the change to open up negotiations to the public was due in part to Jefferies’ lawsuit. He said the board is committed to transparency, and wants to remain on the right side of the law.
“The standards for moving into executive session are being more strictly observed in the courts, and by the board,” Stitzel said.
Jefferies said he had made clear to the board that he would take the supervisory union back to court if it held talks in secret again.
“The school board was likely convinced that A. I was likely to (sue) and, B. I was likely to win,” Jefferies said.
Stitzel said the board has in the past been open to public talks, but the teachers’ union objected. Bristol Elementary teacher Andrea Murnane, who was at the meeting, disputed that assertion.
“The (teachers’) association’s team has no problem with the ‘open session’ or televised negotiations,” she said on Friday. “We have nothing to hide.”
But Jefferies said it doesn’t matter to him what the parties’ positions are on holding open meetings. All that matters, he said, is that the public can now witness talks that will affect school budgets and the education taxes required to fund those schools.
“It has had the effect I wanted, which is to open the process and let fresh air in,” he said. “Whether it benefits either side is not relevant.”