ANeSU teachers call off strike plans

BRISTOL — Students in the six Addison Northeast Supervisory Union schools were in class Wednesday, though just a few days earlier they were getting ready for an unwanted day off.
Feb. 9 was the strike date set by teachers in the five-town public school district, but the teachers called off the strike on Monday evening. They said they would finish up the school year under contract conditions that the ANeSU school boards imposed on Jan. 5 and begin negotiating a new contract that will begin next year.
“We decided that at this point we’d like move forward with the (contract that the school boards imposed),” said Heather Parkhurst, a Mount Abraham Union High School calculus teacher and the teachers’ union’s chief negotiator. “We’re in the classrooms teaching the children.”
But even though the teachers are in the classrooms, the issues that brought them to the brink of a walk-out are still on the table.
Contracts for ANeSU teachers expired last July 1, and the union and school boards negotiated a new contract during the fall. The two sides were at loggerheads over several issues, with key sticking points being the size of the teacher pay raise, the inclusion of automatic “step increases” in pay, and an increase in the portion of their health insurance that teachers would cover.
The teachers warned of the strike after school boards on Jan. 5 imposed a contract that did not match the demands teachers had made in contract negotiations, though the school boards’ chief negotiator, Lanny Smith, said it went farther than the boards’ original final offer in December.
Negotiators from the two sides met again last Wednesday, but board representatives again made a final offer that teachers again declined. The union opened a strike headquarters in Bristol last Thursday.
All of the members of the Addison Northeast Education Association, the 180-member teachers’ union, met Monday for an open discussion, Parkhurst said. She said there was a strong sense of unity over the decision not to strike on Wednesday, but “by our bylaws there was no vote.”
Parkhurst is looking for a new tone when negotiations restart.
“I don’t know if the issues will be different, but I think the understanding will be different,” she said. “The discussion piece wasn’t there before … A community member in one of the meetings talked about how in the process of negotiations there is a mutual trust that builds up and that was missing this time.”
As such, Parkhurst didn’t give a deadline for when she expected a deal for next year to be completed.
“Putting a time limit on it puts limitations on the process. The process needs to be worked through,” she said.
Smith on Tuesday afternoon said he was still waiting to hear from someone from the union, but he was glad the strike was called off.
“We want to educate the children,” he said. “We have really great teachers here, we like them to be in the classroom.”
Smith said if he was surprised about anything it was that the teachers chose to come back under the imposed contract for the rest of the year, rather than work under the three-year contract the boards had proposed.
“I think the longer the better at this point,” he said. “It provides stability.”
While he was open to going back to the negotiating table, Smith wasn’t sure about an open-ended discussion.
“I don’t know how productive it is just to keep talking, you have to be making progress,” he said. “It’s a lot of time and a lot of stress for the negotiators — for the board members and for the teachers.”
Parkhurst said that through talking over the fall she felt that teachers had heard and understood the economic pressures on the taxpayers.
“We heard that message and we made concessions on some (salary and health insurance issues),” she said.
But she wanted the boards to understand why they feel they should be compensated at a rate comparable to that of teachers in other districts.
The question of yearly step increases, for instance, is really important, she said, because they acknowledge the improvement teachers make over a year and fulfill an implicit promise schools make when hiring new teachers.
“People spend years going to school to be a teacher,” Parkhurst said. “With the education we have, those earlier salaries are less than the professional wages they could get elsewhere (for the same education).
“The step increases say if you stay here, work in this profession, you will reach professional wages eventually,” she said. “It may take 15-20 years.”
Smith hoped there would be room for negotiation, given that the economy appears to be showing some life. But he didn’t see any great expansion in the amount of money available.
“Gov. Shumlin said he is going to cut education funding and force pre-kindergarten on schools in the state and it will be unfunded,” he said.
But on Tuesday those issues were for another day. Students and parents were glad that the school year would not be interrupted.
A strike would have caused disruption for students and parents like Kimberly Dyer. The New Haven resident, who has five teenagers in her household who attend Mount Abe, said her kids on Eagle basketball teams were worried about missing games and if missed classes would mean no post-season play. Another daughter who was engaged in fund-raising for a field hockey team trip to Bermuda was worried that school being closed would result in less time to raise the required amount of money.
In addition, like other parents, Dyer said she had a family trip planned for the school vacation, and even if a strike had led to classes being held during that week she would have taken the kids out of school, despite the fact they could be penalized.
“The parents of elementary school students were really upset,” Dyer said. “Some of them couldn’t go to work if their kids couldn’t go to school. They’d have to stay home with them.
“It would have been real difficult for some people.”
Dyer said her kids were very glad the teachers are not striking.
“They said, ‘I never thought I’d say this, I’m glad that school was going to be in session,’” she said.
John McCright is at [email protected].

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