Vergennes-area teachers discuss new contract

VERGENNES — The Addison Northwest Teachers’ Association on Dec. 19 will present a salary counter-proposal to Vergennes-area school officials in an ongoing effort to forge a new labor contract for district educators.
It is the first negotiation since the five towns in the Addison Northwest school district voted last spring to consolidate governance and budgeting for the district’s four schools under the terms of Act 46.
The teachers — who work at Vergennes Union High School, Vergennes Union Elementary School, and Addison and Ferrisburgh central schools — are in the final year of a three-year pact that expires on June 30. Negotiators confirmed they are currently talking about a new, one-year deal that would span from July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018. Both sides have thus far met three times in what has been a mainly public negotiation process.
VUHS Guidance Counselor Susan Oliveira and VUES teacher Rose Wenzel are the lead negotiators for the Addison Northwest Teachers’ Association, known as the ANTA.
“I think we have a long way to go,” Oliveira said of the gulf between the two sides’ contract aspirations. “But we’re moving ahead at a steady pace, which I am enthusiastic about.”
“It’s been cordial,” Wenzel said of talks thus far.
Mark Koenig is the leader of the Addison Northwest School District (ANWSD) board’s negotiating team. Based on interviews with Koenig, Oliveira and Wenzel — along with proposed contract terms and meeting minutes available for public viewing on anwsu.org — here is where talks stood on some of the major bargaining issues, as of early this week:
Health care
For the first six months of the new contract (July 1 to Dec. 31, 2017), the school board is proposing to offer teachers the same health care coverage they are receiving under the current contract. The district currently pays 87.5 percent of the premiums for a Vermont Education Health Initiative (VEHI) health care plan, and the same dollar amount for teachers enrolled in a comparable Blue Cross/Blue Shield plan.
Things would change under the last six months of the contract, however, as the VEHI program as we know it will no longer be offered beginning Jan. 1, 2018. So from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2018, the board is offering to contribute toward the costs of four different VEHI health care options that will be available. Specifically, the board is offering $4,404 annually toward the cost of single-person coverage; $8,256 toward the cost of two-person (adults) coverage; $6,804 toward the cost of a policy covering a parent with children; and $12,180 toward a family plan.
Koenig said the teacher could apply the district’s contribution toward the premiums of a spouse or partner’s health care policy, if they are covered under such a policy.
The teacher would pay the balance of his or her premiums through payroll deduction, according to the school board’s offer.
“Health care in the state is changing,” Koenig said of the VEHI program.
The Addison Northwest Teachers Association is instead proposing that the district pay 95 percent of the premium costs for a single person, two-person or family plan in the VEHI options outlined by the school board. In addition, the ANTA is asking the district to provide each teacher with an “integrated Health Reimbursement Arrangement” sufficient to cover “all medical expenses not covered by the VEHI plan chosen by the teacher.”
Wages and salary
At this point, the school board is proposing to elevate the starting annual salary for a new ANWSD teacher from what is now around $36,000, to $42,609, according to Koenig. The board is also proposing to give teachers, across the board, a salary bump of $747 for the 2017-2018 academic year.
A $750 raise amounts to a roughly 1-percent increase for the district’s highest-paid teachers and more like a 2-percent raise for newer teachers, according to Koenig.
“We felt the starting salary for new teachers in Addison Northwest was on the lower side (compared to neighboring) districts, so we bumped it up,” Koenig said.
Teachers are currently working under a contract (2014-2017) that assures them annual increases of 2 percent in base salary (plus additional increases if they achieve certain educational milestones) during the three-year pact.
Oliveira said the ANTA is slated to present its financial requests — including salary figures — to the school board at the next negotiating session, on Dec. 19.
“I hope it will make an impact on the board and the public,” Oliveira said of that presentation.
Not having received salary terms from ANTA has made it difficult to make progress on the overall contract, according to Koenig.
“We want to talk about a full package,” Koenig said. “Having the one thing that constitutes 85 percent of the money, and having no idea what it is, it makes it hard to talk money.”
Length of school day
The school board is seeking to increase the length of the school day from the current 7 hours and 15 minutes to eight hours, Koenig said. In addition, the board is proposing that new teachers have two additional non-student work days on their calendars during their first year with the ANWSD for “orientation and other district-designated work.”
The board’s contract proposal calls for a school year spanning 190 days “with no fewer than the minimum number of student days required under Vermont law.”
ANTA proposal calls for a school year of up to 185 days, made up of 176 teaching days and nine in-service days.
Teachers are also requesting to maintain the current workday of 7 hours and 15 minutes, including duty-free lunch and prep time.
Professional development
The ANWSD board is proposing to offer annual funding of $150,000 for professional development, which qualifying teachers could tap on a first-come, first-served basis. The district currently spends around $130,000 annually for professional development for its teachers, according to Koenig.
A complete list of ANTA’s and the school board’s proposals can be found at anwsu.org.
ANTA suggested 19 specific ground rules for the negotiating process, including that each session last no longer than two hours, each side have caucus rights, each side use consultants as they deem necessary, and that there be no press releases issued unless or until an impasse is declared. Oliveira said she’s disappointed the board has not chosen to subscribe to the union’s proposed ground rules for negotiations, and believes their adoption would have improved the tenor and tone of the talks.
ANTA, according to Oliveira, did not favor negotiating the teachers’ contract in public. She said public disclosure of the board’s initial contract proposal can be unnerving to rank-and-file teachers.
“It’s a tough blow to teachers, I think. It doesn’t add to the overall climate in a positive way,” she said. “They have (historically) been protected from that first blow and see the final product, which is the culmination of a lot of work and negotiating to get to a better place.”
“This was one of the ground rules that the board wanted,” ANWSD Superintendent Joann Canning said of the public negotiations. She added her research has indicated most school districts in Vermont are now doing contract talks in open session.
The public talks on a new teachers’ contract, Koenig believes, are also in line with what he sees as a new era of openness under Act 46.
“We felt Act 46 was passed by the voters because they were looking for more accountability and transparency,” Koenig said. “You can’t really understand the contract if (the process) isn’t transparent.”
Koenig added the board is looking at this negotiating period as an opportunity not only to engage in talks with teachers, but also clean up some of the archaic verbiage in the old contract.
That’s why the school board’s first contract proposal to teachers is 41 pages long, he said.
The teachers union’s most recent proposal, in contrast, is eight pages long and focuses on the major bargaining issues.
“The contract that exists now has been tweaked a little bit here and a little bit there,” Koenig said. “We wanted to just start fresh, in a way, and clean up language of a lot of legalese. There’s no substantive changes; we’re just trying to make it more readable to the average person.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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