ANeSU teachers, board at impasse

BRISTOL — Representatives of the six Addison Northeast Supervisory Union school boards and of the teachers who work in those schools met into the wee hours last Thursday negotiating a contract for the current school year. By the end of the night the two sides had come to an impasse.
The school boards will meet next month to decide whether to restart negotiations or impose a contract. If they opt for the latter, the teachers will have to agree to take what the boards offer or strike.
“The board … came to the table at midnight and said this is the final offer,” said Mount Abraham Union High School  math teacher Heather Parkhurst, lead negotiator for the Addison Northeast Education Association. “It was an uneasy feeling. We had hoped we would settle that evening; both groups were moving through the issues.”
According to Lanny Smith, chairman of the Mount Abe school board and lead negotiator on behalf of the school boards, three major issues are under dispute: automatic salary increases, teacher salaries and health insurance contributions.
The biggest issue, perhaps, is the automatic salary increases, or “step” increases, which require the school boards to pay yearly salary increases based on a teacher’s years of experience. According to Smith, members of all of the ANeSU boards unanimously voted to add language to the contracts that would allow board members to negotiate the terms of these increases — language that currently does not exist.
“It’s mandated by state law unless you write that out,” Smith said. “We want to be able to negotiate it, and negotiate a full contract, rather than just a part of it. We don’t like having our hands tied over that.”
Adding this language to the contract would allow board members to adjust salary increases according to the funds available in any given year. As Smith put it in a press release issued after the Dec. 16 impasse, “Quite simply, the boards believe that it is unfair for the taxpayers to have to pay salary increases without giving the boards the opportunity to negotiate over those increases.”
“The boards were very unanimous about this,” Smith said in an interview. “There was absolutely no disagreement from anyone about the step increase. We all believe that we should be able to negotiate the contract.”
If salary increases are not up for negotiation, teachers have no incentive to settle a contract, according to Smith.
The urgency to wrap up negotiations was intensified because Bristol-area teachers are working under the contract that expired last July 1, plus the automatic step increases. Smith said that even if the boards could negotiate lower pay increases for the teachers than the automatic steps currently in place, the schools would not be able to recoup the larger salaries already being paid.
“Why would you hurry to settling if you’re already getting more money that you would otherwise?” he said.
But according to Parkhurst, the salary increases “are not automatic;” they are based on years worked as a teacher and number of years at a school.
To alter the way in which salary increases are distributed, she said, would be “upending decades of labor practice.”
Other issues that are holding up the negotiation process are the teachers’ demands for a 2.9-percent salaryincrease — school board members have agreed to no more that 2.5 percent — and larger health insurance contributions. Currently, teachers are required to pay 10 percent of their health insurance premiums. School board members have proposed raising the contribution to 20 percent. Smith, in his press release, said that mot paraprofessionals in the district pay 23 percent of their health insurance premiums, and some pay more. He said that the boards offered to split the difference with teachers and cover 85 percent of health insurance premiums while teachers would pay 15 percent.
According to Parkhurst, other teachers in Addison County are paying just 10 percent, a standard that she would like to see maintained within the ANeSU.
One of the teachers association’s biggest complaints is that the school boards have not taken the neutral, third-party “fact-finder’s report” into consideration throughout the negotiations process. In September, both the ANeSU boards and the teachers’ association agreed to have a third party take arguments from both sides into consideration and to produce a series of recommendations based on that information.
Fact-finder Sarah Kerr Garraty released her report in November. In it, she considered dozens of changes to the last ANeSU teacher contract proposed by the teachers and by the boards. She favored some of the boards’ suggestions and some of the teachers’, and she recommended combining the suggestions in some cases.
The fact-finder’s report shows that on the issue of salaries, the boards offered to cut salaries on average by 3 percent (which Kerr Garraty called “unreasonably draconian”) and the teachers asked for an overall 5.6 percent increase (which the fact-finder said was not supported by increases in comparable communities). Kerr Garraty recommended a 2.5 percent salary increase.
On the health insurance split, Kerr Garraty recommended that the teachers continue to pay 10 percent of the premiums, while accepting a board proposal to add another plan that could save some money.
Parkhurst admits that not everything in the report came out in favor of the teachers.
“They certainly didn’t go our way on everything, but that’s to be expected,” Parkhurst said. “We’re certainly willing to negotiate that and we’re continuing to negotiate that.”
“This is hard for me, these are my friends we are dealing with,” Smith said. “I’d love to have everyone make $100,000, but reality steps in.”
“The teachers’ union wants to go back to the table to establish a contract that is fair for schools, fair for teachers and good for the community and imposition is not any of those things,” Parkhurst said. “Unfortunately, if they walk away they are pushing us toward very few options — we could either work under the imposed contract, or choose to take job action.”
No additional negotiation sessions have been scheduled.
Tamara Hilmes is at [email protected].

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