ANeSU strike still possible after boards, teachers meet

BRISTOL — On Wednesday evening, negotiators from the six Addison Northeast Supervisory Union school boards and from the district’s teachers’ union met for more than five hours only to end up walking away from the table once again, having reached no settlement.
This last negotiations meeting came after Addison Northeast teachers voted on Jan. 27 to set a strike deadline of Feb. 9 if the boards refused to come back to the table and reach a settlement. Following last Wednesday’s meeting, teachers took the next steps toward striking by opening their strike headquarters on Main Street in Bristol.
Negotiations came to an end Wednesday night after the boards made a final offer and the teachers’ union representatives refused it, moving the boards to revert back to the imposed contract conditions.
During Wednesday’s negotiations session, representatives of the boards put forth two versions of a three-year contract proposal that would lower salary increases from the 3 percent that teachers had originally hoped for, and increase the amount that teachers would pay toward their health insurance. One of the two was labeled “final offer.”
The plan that the teachers brought to the table similarly lowered the salary increase and raised insurance contribution rates, but to a lesser degree.
The boards offered teachers a three-year contract that would increase teacher salaries by 2.52 percent in the first year, and then offer increases of 1.5 percent in the second and third years.
In the boards’ final offer before the Jan. 5 imposition of a contract, they were still using a one-year model and asking teachers to contribute 15 percent of the cost of health insurance. On Wednesday, the boards offered a more gradual increasing contribution. They made the insurance contribution 11 percent for the first year — a 1-percent increase from the 10 percent that teachers currently pay. This would increase to 13 percent in the second year of the contract, and to 15 percent in the third year.
While teachers agreed to an 11-percent contribution for the first year and to a gradual increase of 0.5 percent each year, the most they were willing to pay was 12 percent according to the school boards and confirmed by a union representative. Teachers also were not satisfied by the salary increase plan laid out by the boards. While they agreed to a 2.52 percent increase in salary for the first year, they were only willing to go down to a 2.2 increase for the second year and requested that it rise back up to 2.5 for the third.
The board also sought to eliminate step increases after this year. Teachers will still receive the increases for 2010-2011 regardless of these negotiations, but not after if the boards have their way. Teachers still seek to maintain step increases as they are.
Step increases guarantee certain pay increases based on years of service.
When the boards did not alter their position Wednesday night, the teachers’ union refused the boards’ final offer.
“It is clear to us that these boards don’t want to resolve this at the table,” said Heather Parkhurst, a Mount Abraham Union High School AP Calculus teacher who is the union’s chief negotiator in a Thursday press release. “It’s one thing to engage in negotiations, and quite another to actually sit down until the job is done.”
Prior to the final offer, Parkhurst said she was encouraged on Wednesday by the kind of discussion that was taking place between teachers and board members who, for the first time in a negotiations meeting, spoke directly to one another and not through attorneys.
“There was definitely a lot of dialogue, which was great,” she said in a Friday interview. “If we started this process with a lot of dialogue like this, I don’t know if we would be where we’re at right now.”
Board members and teachers both spoke their piece before diving into the nitty-gritty of the proposals. After haggling over percentages and step increases, a settlement was not reached.
According to a press release sent out on Thursday by the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union, committee members believe their proposal is fair given the “current economic conditions” and forthcoming revenue reductions that the state has projected.
“The boards hope the teachers will recognize that the boards tried very hard to compromise,” it read. “For the sake of the students, families and taxpayers of our communities, the boards sincerely hope the teachers will accept the three-year proposal offered by the boards.”
But Parkhurst, who says that the teachers have made a number of concessions since the Jan. 5 negotiations, said teachers simply were unable to accept the boards’ “final offer.”
“The board members talked a lot about how they are really running a business as school board members and I think it’s really important to keep in mind that while it’s definitely important to run a business in a fiscally responsible way, it’s equally as important to keep morale high,” Parkhurst said. “In schools we work with one of the most important products — our children. We need to treat employees with a respectful way that helps them do the best job that they possibly can.”
Until both sides agree to terms, teachers will not sign a contract, Parkhurst said.
“In setting the strike deadline we were asking for the boards to return to the table and in the same breath to stay until the job is done and to reach a negotiated settlement,” Parkhurst said. “Them using the term ‘final offer’ draws a line in the sand.”
On Thursday, Feb. 3, the Addison Northeast Education Association, the teachers’ union, announced that teachers had opened their strike headquarters — or “Avoid-a-Strike” headquarters, as teachers have dubbed it — at 27 Main St. in Bristol. According to Parkhurst, this location will be used for organization efforts, including a phone bank and literature drop.
Teachers hope to avoid a strike, which can be done, Parkhurst said, if a settlement is reached and a contract is signed.
“The goal continues to stay the same — to reach a negotiated settlement,” she said. “The goal is never to strike.”
Tamara Hilmes is at addisonindependent.com. 

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