UPDATE 2/4/11: After the Independent went to press, a union representative clarified to the paper that the strike would only be put on hold if a settlement were reached.
Negotiations broke down on Wednesday evening, and on Thursday the teachers set a strike deadline of Feb. 9 unless the two groups could reach a settlement by then.
BRISTOL — It looks like a strike by the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union teachers has been avoided — for now.
The ANeSU school boards’ negotiations committee was scheduled to meet late Wednesday with teachers union to continue negotiating the terms of 2010-2011 teacher contract. The teachers union last week said they would strike on Feb. 9 if the board did not come back to the table.
The call for a strike was prompted after the school boards imposed a contract on the teachers on Jan. 5. School board chair Lanny Smith has identified two key sticking points: a change in the way “step increases” in pay are offered and an increase in the amount of contributions teachers make to pay for health insurance.
The boards and teachers planned to readdress issues that prevented a settlement at the last of the negotiations meetings on Jan. 5. At this final sessions prior to the contract imposition, teachers offered to cover a 10.5 percent contribution toward health insurance for the 2011-2012 school year — only a 0.5 percent increase from the 10 percent that they currently pay, while the boards were looking to double the contribution sum to 20 percent. Additionally, teachers asked for a 2.9-percent wage increase, and board members, who originally hoped to freeze salaries, stayed firm at 2.5-percent increases.
“I think it’s ludicrous that these guys don’t think that a 2.5 increase is enough for them,” said Donny Sargent, a Lincoln School Board and negotiations committee member. “I don’t know of anybody that has gotten a raise in the last couple years. Our principal here in Lincoln hasn’t gotten a raise in three years … it just doesn’t seem fair to me.”
According to Sargent, negotiators have been willing to talk throughout the process, but teachers have not been willing to make sacrifices.
“It’s very disheartening to read some of the stuff in the paper that says that we haven’t been bargaining with these guys, which is so totally untrue,” Sargent said. “It was at least our hope that things wouldn’t end up this way … I hear rumors and stories of them saying that they just want us to come back to the table, but they didn’t even really start bargaining on anything big until we imposed that contract.”
In returning to the table, Sargent hopes that teachers will bend a little and that everyone will avoid a strike.
“Imposing a contract does not affect children. Striking does,” he said. “If they really cared about their community they wouldn’t be doing this. They do have a choice.”
At the Mount Abraham Union High School board meeting on Tuesday, a number of Five-Town residents came forward to speak on the contract negotiations issue.
Several spoke in favor of the boards, thanking them for drawing the line and staying strong.
“I’ve never been more proud of my school boards to hold the line,” Starksboro resident Sheldon Ball said. “In the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, I just don’t quite get it. It’s a very fair offer, a very liberal benefit package. The more I read and the more I get into the specifics of the contract, it’s a great offer.”
Ball also expressed his concerns surrounding the possible strike and consequent closing of the schools.
“I’m asking the teachers to not go no strike,” he said. “Both my wife and I work in a situation where we get paid for when we go to work. If we don’t go to work, or if we have to pay someone to take care of the kids — it’s a slap in the face, literally and figuratively, to my family, my children and myself.”
Barb Gibson, also of Starksboro, worried about how a strike will affect her children.
“I have two children, one at Robinson (Elementary) who is going to graduate this year, and I have one at Mount Abe who is getting ready to graduate from here this year,” she said. “The strike’s totally going to mess that up, but they both know where they’re at right now and my oldest daughter came home with some great comments about what the teachers have compared to what we have, so it’s really nice to know that my senior also stands behind the community members.”
While others stood up to echo the concerns about the effects of striking and higher taxes on the community, some commended the boards for making the decision to go back to the table.
“I applaud and thank the boards for their decision to return to the table and reopen the conversation with the teachers,” Phoebe Barash of Bristol said. “As a parent, community member, and former administrator in two schools, I appreciate just how hard it is to have the conversations that are necessary. However if a strike happens, it will affect our community for many years to come. I don’t believe that anybody wants that for our community. In the end, it is our most precious and vulnerable citizens who are affected by a strike: our children.”
One Lincoln resident asked the board members if they had been speaking directly to teachers during the six negotiations meetings that have taken place over the last year. Smith responded by saying that while negotiations committee members are in the room, facing the teachers, they do not speak directly to them. Instead, board members advise their attorney on what to say to the teachers representing their union.
He said they “possibly” could speak directly to the teachers.
“Can we reverse that?” he asked. “I keep hearing that’s a sticking point of respect. It feels like teachers are telling me that they don’t feel respected because they aren’t able to speak to you directly.”
When asked, Smith acknowledged that $19,000 had been allocated for a negotiations attorney by the school boards, but that a final fee could not yet be assessed.
“We haven’t finished negotiations yet,” Smith said.
Tamara Hilmes is at email@example.com