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Parties happy with ANwSU deal

VERGENNES — Lead negotiators on both sides said in a joint interview last week that they are satisfied with the new, two-year Addison Northwest Supervisory Union teachers’ contract, which will expire in June 2012 and preserves teachers’ existing health-care benefits and base pay.
Negotiators reached agreement in an eight-hour mediation session in mid-August, and in late September both the Addison Northwest Teachers’ Association and the ANwSU board — which represents Panton, Waltham, Vergennes, Addison and Ferrisburgh — gave final approval.
The contract gives a $1,528 raise to most teachers. Most, but not all, are eligible for that pay hike because of their “step” up the salary scale due to increased experience and/or additional education.
ANwSU Superintendent Tom O’Brien and Vergennes Union High School guidance counselor Susan Husk, one of two chief union negotiators, said the contract essentially maintained what was already in place, including teachers’ 10 percent share of the cost of their health benefits.
“The important thing in our case is we were able to negotiate an agreement between the parties that was really status quo,” O’Brien said.
Provisions for step raises were built into the previous contract; Husk said that those provisions are universally typical of teacher contracts.
“That’s true of any year and schedule. It’s not something new and particular to this agreed-on master agreement,” said Husk, whose co-chief negotiator was Rose Wenzel.
In all, O’Brien said the total “new money” to pay teachers in the contract was a little more than 2.5 percent.
“That’s really the cost of the contract,” he said.
They said the percentage of raises for those eligible will vary based on their salaries.
Increases will range from roughly 2 to 4 percent, depending on whether the standard raise is added to lower or higher salaries.
O’Brien said some teachers will not qualify for the raise because they did not earn enough experience or educational credits to move a step up the pay scale, while some will earn more than the standard raise because they garnered both.
The previous contract struck between ANwSU and its union came with a four-year term. Both sides said they would have preferred a longer deal again, but given the current economic climate a two-year pact made sense.
Husk said the issue was one of the last resolved when the sides sat down on Aug. 16 with mediator Ira Lobel at the Middlebury Courtyard by Marriott.
“From the union’s perspective, I think if we could have given the teachers a little more hope for a longer contract to come around with maybe a little more money … we would have gone longer,” Husk said. “But given the fluidity of the economics, we felt like we didn’t want to go too long, because if things turn around and get better, we would like to be able to renegotiate something that offers our people more.”
Husk said many, even most, teachers “put in far more time than the minimum set out in that agreement, and they need to be compensated for that,” but at the same time the union is sensitive to taxpayers and did not want to ask for more in tough times.
“Many of us pay taxes in the community in which we work … and we feel the pinch of the tax increase,” Husk said.
O’Brien agreed economic uncertainty made contract length a difficult issue. For a long time during the talks, he said it looked like a one-year deal would be the best possible. As it is, negotiators will start talking about a new contract next fall in hopes of reaching a deal before the spring of 2012.
“I would have preferred a longer-term contract, and I think with the right terms so would the association, because it allows us to get on with the work of the district … I’m pleased we got two years,” O’Brien said.
When a deal was not reached by the time the previous contract expired this past June, an impasse was declared and a mediator called for. But both O’Brien and Husk said at no time were talks truly adversarial.
“Given the economic situation out there, and the concerns of the faculty, I think we had good collegiality,” Husk said.
O’Brien described negotiations as “respectful and deliberate.” When June arrived and the parties agreed on Lobel as the mediator, he said he could meet with them in August, and both parties said it simply made sense to wait, he said. When the sides sat down did again, a deal was struck in one day.
“We weren’t making movement at that point, and it was the end of the school year, take a break,” O’Brien said. “We contacted Ira Lobel, and he let us know he was available on Aug. 16, which was the day we met. We met for seven or eight hours, and reached a tentative agreement.”
Husk said teachers were pleased, especially considering the difficulty some districts around the state have faced in reaching deals — Winooski’s strike was on the minds of many.
“People were very relieved … and hearing what their team has negotiated for them and saying, ‘We’ve got a contract, hallelujah,’” Husk said. “Yeah, I think they were very happy.”
O’Brien said agreement is never universal, but consensus was positive among ANwSU board members.
“There are exceptions, as there are for Susan’s statements. But overall, I think the boards felt it was good,” he said.
The cycle of contract talks will re-start soon. The four-year deal for support staff at the four ANwSU schools expires in June.
“In about a month we’ll start negotiating,” O’Brien said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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