Paraeducators and bus drivers vote to strike at RNeSU

BRANDON — Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union teachers’ aides and bus drivers have voted to strike at mid-month as the Brandon-area school boards bristle under accusations of elitism and one board chair schools the union on his definition of respect.
The Rutland Northeast Paraeducators and Bus Drivers Association met Oct. 28 and voted to strike on Nov. 16 if the Rutland Northeast and Brandon school boards do not agree to re-open negotiations on the 2013-2014 contract. The membership also voted to file unfair labor practices charges against the boards. The details of those charges have not been made public.
The boards voted to impose the current contract in June after 18 months of negotiation, use of a mediator and a fact-finding report failed to result in an agreement.
The association voted to reject the imposed contract in September. At issue is the pay raise and health insurance co-pay. The boards imposed a 3.5 percent pay raise, retroactive for one year, and an increase in the employees’ health insurance contribution from 3.5 percent to 5 percent.
Despite repeated calls from the association to return to the bargaining table, the boards refused, saying the members had 18 months to negotiate in good faith, plus mediation and a fact finder’s report, and chose to walk away from the negotiations.
Association President Loretta Johnson hit a nerve with her opinion piece published last week in the Brandon Reporter, the Independent’s sister newspaper. In that commentary, Johnson implied that RNeSU Negotiation Committee Chair Jim Rademacher of Pittsford is out of touch with the needs of the teachers aides and bus drivers in her association because he is a radiologist.
“What board negotiator Dr. James Rademacher (who, as a radiologist is a member of a profession whose average annual salary is north of $350,000) can’t understand is that we who work with the community’s children actually have to make a living, too,” Johnson wrote. “Unlike both the (RNeSU) attorney and the radiologist, our full-time jobs working with the community’s children don’t pay enough for us to make a living. Most of my colleagues work two, three or even four jobs just to make ends meet for them and their families.”
Johnson repeated the assertion in another statement during the public comment portion of the Oct. 28 RNeSU Executive Committee meeting.
“To you, especially those who may be doctors, lawyers or business people, we’re just numbers on a spreadsheet,” she said. “But we aren’t. We’re hardworking people who have families and bills to pay.”
Johnson said the membership does not want to strike.
“Tonight, we ask you once more to rejoin us at the table,” Johnson said, adding that the association is prepared to present a comprehensive proposal that they believe would allow both sides to reach an agreement “until at least the end of the school year.”
She also said the association is willing to work with a mediator again in order to reach a settlement.
Johnson reiterated the Paraeducators and Bus Drivers Association’s belief that the boards’ contract imposition showed a lack of respect and damaged relations between the two sides.
“You must know that the only way to get to fix the problems caused by the imposition is to negotiate with us, like we always used to, to reach a settlement,” Johnson said. “Otherwise, our next step on Nov. 16 will be to strike.”
Two association members then stood and backed up Johnson’s claim that the $18,000-$22,000 annual salary they make is not enough to provide for their families. One Otter Valley Union High School paraeducator, Lucy Lovell, said that she and her husband work six jobs between them to provide for themselves and their toddler.
“I love our kids,” she said. “I love our staff, I love working here. I will say that it is hard for me to make ends meet … I want to see us all come to an agreement. I want to see us all negotiate and I want us to all work toward the same cause, which is our students.”
Cassandra Hayes has been a paraeducator at the Leicester Central School for 11 years. She said she works three jobs to support her family. She also asked the boards to return to negotiations.
“It’ll be a great model for our children,” she said. “To let them know we can work together and create a positive working relationship.”
But the public comment continued with pointed statements from school board members across the supervisory union.
Clarence Greeno sits on the Lothrop School Board in Pittsford. He noted that the paraeducators and bus drivers in the Rutland Central Supervisory Union, which covers Rutland Town, Proctor and West Rutland, signed a contract last week. Employees in Rutland Town agreed to pay 20.5 percent toward their health insurance, and paras and bus drivers in Proctor agreed to a 25 percent contribution.
“To pay 5 percent of insurance, the increase is not a lot,” Greeno, said. “You really need to take a look deep down inside and say, ‘Is this fair for the taxpayers for whom I’m working, and for the children?’”
Greeno’s fellow Lothrop board member, Bonnie Bourne, is a career educator. The former longtime principal at Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary School said the comments made regarding the paras and drivers being unappreciated were insulting.
“I find it personally offensive to be told that I don’t appreciate a group of people,” she said. “That I don’t appreciate an individual because I happen to be a doctor or lawyer or superintendent … I think it was not helpful to have statements like that made. It certainly doesn’t make one feel that there is a willingness to come together and resolve things.”
She said she was particularly disturbed by the reference to Rademacher’s salary as a radiologist.
“I think it has absolutely no relevance to this discussion,” Bourne said. “If I wanted to make upwards of $350,000, then I, too, could go to medical school for 12 or 14 or 16 years and work very hard and enter that profession. I chose to enter a different profession.”
In closing, Bourne urged association members to consider what is being said on their behalf.
“I would just ask folks to make sure that you believe from the bottom of your heart what people are saying for you,” she said. “Because whether you say it or not, they represent you and those statements are attached to you.”
The union voted to strike early on Oct. 28, and by the time the RNeSU Executive Committee met that night, the boards had issued a response. Committee Chair Dick White read the statement aloud:
“The boards are disappointed to hear that the support staff has ordered to commence a strike on Nov. 16 … In the opinion of the boards, the voters and taxpayers have been very supportive of Rutland Northeast schools during difficult economic times, but they have reached their limit for continued increases in education spending.”
The statement went on to repeat the board’s assertion that the terms imposed are reasonable, particularly given the flat economy in Vermont, and that they want the support staff to enter negotiations for the current 2015-2016 fiscal year contract.
The statement then noted the association’s assertions that the boards have been disrespectful during the contract battle. White, a former longtime pastor with the Brandon Congregational Church, stopped reading the statement at that point.
“I want to share some personal comments about respect,” he said. “This is coming from me, not the boards.”
He went on to share what his parents taught him about earning respect as well as giving it.
“If you wanted to be respected, you needed to conduct yourself in a way that is worthy of respect,” White said. “Follow through on your word, always be truthful, do what you know is right, even if it goes against popular opinion. Be considerate of others and listen carefully. You don’t always have to agree, but you need to listen. Then you will earn respect.”
White said his parents also taught him what not to do, and he pointedly shared those lessons as well.
“If, on the other hand, you try to manipulate or control, refuse to be reasonable and not listen, you do not earn respect,” White said. “If you work in secret, hide your real meaning for action and the reasons behind them, then you do not earn respect. If you change your opinion based on who you are talking to, and then change it for the next person, you don’t earn respect. If you seek unreasonable conditions that affect others, then you do not earn respect.”
White added that respecting someone and liking them do not always go hand in hand.
“In my life, I have come across folks who I have deeply respected, but I didn’t like them very much,” he said. “I have tried to make my parents proud. I hope I have succeeded.”
White then collected himself and returned to the boards’ statement on the strike vote.
“Nothing in the comments of the Association leadership reflects any consideration of the broader interest that influenced the board’s decision, nor has there been any acknowledgment of 18 months of negotiation in good faith,” White read. “It is time for the Association to recognize that what it seeks for its members has a direct impact on students, parents, voters and taxpayers. The boards ask the Association to reveal the path it has chosen with broader vision and abandon plans for a strike.”
With that, and another request to enter negotiations for the 2015-2016 contract year, the public comment period ended.
All 10 individual school boards within Rutland Northeast, and the RNeSU Executive Committee, will meet for a group meeting on Thursday, Nov. 5, at 6 p.m. in the library at OVUHS. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss a plan in the event of a strike.
Editor’s note: Lee J. Kahrs is editor of the Brandon Reporter.

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