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Teachers call off strike in Orwell district

ORWELL — Early Wednesday morning, school boards in the Addison Rutland Supervisory Union (ARSU) and representatives of the district’s teachers’ union reached a tentative contract agreement, averting a threatened teachers’ strike that day.
Orwell Village School board chair Glen Cousineau, who said both sides agreed to keep details of the agreement private until it is ratified, was relieved by the breakthrough.
“It’s a give and take, and luckily the kids are in school today,” he said Wednesday morning. “But until things change in Montpelier, the system has its flaws.”
Until the 5 a.m. announcement of the settlement, parents and others in the community worried about the impact of a strike, and even the threat of one.
Many among the 50-some attendees at an Orwell school board meeting Tuesday evening expressed frustrations with the contract negotiation process from many different sides.
David Anderson questioned the imposed ARSU contract, which, in the absence of the tentative contract agreement, would have required teachers to repay money they received in the step salary increase that they began receiving in September, resulting in what the Vermont National Education Association reported would withhold a total of about $100 from teacher paychecks for the remainder of the year.
Tom Audet said teachers in the district have been sheltered from the recession thus far, stating that the previous four-year contract in the district had a built-in 16 percent salary and health coverage increase.
“That’s four years of total protection from the hardships suffered by your neighbors,” said Audet. “The last four years many are calling as severe as the Great Depression, yet you were protected.”
When asked for clarification, Cousineau said Orwell’s starting salaries are not among the top in the state.
And Anderson pointed out that the impact of any salary increase would be minimal in Orwell, since there are only three teachers in the school who would benefit from a step increase. The rest of the teachers, Cousineau said, have reached the upper salary limit, with one expected retirement at the end of this year.
Mike Audet wondered what Orwell has spent in hours, legal fees and mediator fees during the contract negotiation. Cousineau estimated the number to be more than $11,000.
ARSU Superintendent Ron Ryan said the dissension over teacher contracts at that point Tuesday evening was down to health coverage, salary and a sunset clause that would prohibit teachers from receiving pay raises after the contract expires, which he said would provide an incentive to negotiate a new contract. Other issues on the table had included dental insurance and life insurance.
Russell Young spoke up from the crowd, stating that by his calculations the fight over health care and salary came down to a difference of only $6,000 for Orwell — less than the $11,000 it had cost local taxpayers. Members of the board did not disagree.
“Basically, we’re talking about having a public brouhaha over $6,000,” he said.
He pointed out that in the past year, the school board has made a number of spending decisions, including reinstating a staff member, that indicate that there is money within the schools coffers.
“Clearly, it’s not about the money, so I can’t believe you’re going to make me explain this to my kids for $6,000.”
School board member Sarah Tetzlaff clarified that the issue goes beyond Orwell to the entire ARSU district, where the contract was being negotiated.
Cousineau said the supervisory union towns chose to negotiate as one unit because of pressure from the state to consolidate bargaining on teacher contracts.
Darren Allen, spokesman for the Vermont NEA, said on Wednesday that a bill in the Legislature is intended to reduce the number of negotiations happening by consolidating them on a supervisory union level, but that it also means that all component boards must ratify one contract.
“We never wanted to be here,” said Cousineau. “It was my vote that the school continue as it has been, but the state is looking to move this to the supervisory union level.”
Tom Pinsonneault, a former Orwell teacher who is now a part-time teacher in Benson, said teachers, like everyone else, are just struggling to pay the bills.
“We’re not money-grubbers,” he said. “We’re just looking for a fair settlement. We’re not trying to put you in the poorhouse,”
Ann Larkin, an Orwell Village School fifth- and sixth-grade teacher, said some of the seemingly large additions to the teacher contract come simply from trying to negotiate a contract among schools that currently offer different salaries and benefits to their teachers.
“The teachers in Orwell didn’t say, we want life insurance, too; we want dental insurance, too,” she said. “Those things were put on the table so that we could look at what we’ve already got and try to make it more equal.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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