Mt. Abe support staff, board clash over contract

BRISTOL — Mount Abraham Union High School’s non-union support staff and members of the high school board clashed on Tuesday night over a tender subject: salary and benefit negotiations.
The conversation came after the Mount Abe board, in a rare move, decided to suspend the rules at its board meeting on Tuesday evening to openly discuss a topic normally left behind closed doors.
So far, the school board is pushing for no increase in salaries for the non-union staff, and has also indicated an interest in raising health insurance co-pays from 4 to 10 percent.
On one side of the table, Mount Abe board members are arguing that in increasingly tough times, the board needs to reign in costs; on the other, the support staff says cuts are being unfairly leveled against their employees while the salaries of other staff members at the high school have gone untouched.
The support staff has largely balked at the initial recommendation, in large part because union staff members are guaranteed a 4 percent raise under a contract that will run for an additional two years.
The non-union support staff — made up of 15 employees whose clerical, custodial or food service positions make them ineligible to join the union — argued that any discrepancy between union and non-union labor contracts is unfair.
“We as non-union members are being singled out because we can be,” Bev Mayer, a 35-year employee at Mount Abe, told the school board on Tuesday night.
“It is not fair to take the 15 people who are not in the union and make guinea pigs of them when it was voted by the towns to pass the budget,” said Mount Abe employee Cynthia Benway. “I think you need to wait and put it off (until) everybody can be treated equally.”
Board members expressed distaste for breaking the parity among union and non-union contracts, and agreed that a change would be unfair. But board chairman Lanny Smith said that board members’ hands are tied for the time being. Unless the union agrees to reopen negotiations on salaries, the 4 percent salary raise is set in stone for union members.
“As soon as we can touch the union contract, we’ll go there too,” said board chair Lanny Smith. “We’re in a bind.”
Smith said after the meeting that the board will move to cut salary increases in other budgets when possible, and said that at this point the board isn’t offering any money in the ongoing negotiations for the high school’s teachers. Those negotiations are slated to head to mediation in June.
Voters in the five towns that feed into Mount Abe approved a $13.2 million spending plan on Town Meeting Day that reflected a 1.72 percent decrease from 2009-2010 school year total spending, and matches the current school year’s educational spending dollar-for-dollar. Declining student enrollment means the level-funded budget still includes a roughly 6 percent increase in per pupil spending.
The budget passed by voters included a line item calling for an increase in the support staff salaries, but the board spoke with urgency about the need to begin controlling growth in the school budget. Board member Bonita Bedard said that budgeting is just going to become more difficult as state and federal money continues to dry up.
“I hear that it feels unfair given the union situation, but I attend an awful lot of meetings up in Montpelier about what’s going on in this state and in the country with the economy,” Bedard said. “I am serious when I say we have got to start somewhere. The status quo is impossible … We can’t just keep saying yes to everything.”
Bedard added that the potential cuts aren’t a reflection on the work that the non-union support staff does so much as a reaction to economic realities.
But some members of the support staff expressed skepticism that funds saved up by cutting raises would save taxpayers money in the long run.
“I have a feeling that this money that you plan to save … will be spent on new programs or additional teachers or pizzas at Cubber’s for the kids. I have a feeling that that’s where that money is going to be going,” Mayer said. “Am I wrong? I don’t think I am.”
Smith said nothing was further from the board’s intentions.
“Any money that is not spent is going to be saved and passed back to the taxpayers,” Smith said. “We’re definitely not looking at any new programs.”
The next step is for board members on the negotiating committee and members of the support staff to sit down again to draft language for a new contract, which could be made public in early- or mid-May.
Smith said that making these cuts is painful, and hurts board members, but appears to be an economic necessity.
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected].

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