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Middlebury-area teachers and board at impasse on new contract

MIDDLEBURY — Addison Central School District directors have declared an impasse in negotiations for a new contract for the newly unified district’s combined 230 teachers, and the two sides will now pick an independent mediator in an effort to make progress.
Peter Conlon, chairman of the ACSD board, stressed that declaring impasse doesn’t mean talks have ended; it simply means the two sides need some assistance in resolving their differences on three major contract areas: pay increases, health coverage and length of school day.
If a mediator can’t further the talks, the next step would be to bring in a fact finder to review board and union contract proposals and compare them to data from around the state and region. The fact finder would then recommend resolution for the disputed terms of the contract proposals.
The teachers’ current three-year pact extends through June 30 of this year. If a deal is not forged by then, teachers would work under terms of the expired pact and any gains made in a new agreement would be made retroactive to July 1, officials said.
“Reaching impasse is a common step in public school negotiations, and not unexpected this year across the state as school boards and unions study new health care offerings and regulations,” Conlon said.
School boards and teachers’ unions in the Vergennes-area Addison Northwest, Bristol-area Addison Northeast and Brandon-area Rutland Northeast school districts are also in contract negotiations.
ACSD and representatives of the district’s three teachers’ unions have been negotiating in open session since last October. The three unions — the Middlebury Education Association, Middlebury Education Teachers Association, and Addison Central Education Association — are negotiating together for a single agreement.
The contract will cover teachers at Middlebury Union middle and high schools, as well as those working at the graded schools in Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge.
Larry O’Connor, a longtime alternative education teachers at Middlebury Union High School, is a member of the union negotiating team. He said the teachers’ union would prefer to continue talks. The last bargaining session between the two sides was on March 1.
“We believe there are still a lot of things we can negotiate,” O’Connor said Friday morning.
“We feel like we can negotiate a fair settlement for both sides.”
STATE OF PLAY
What follows is a summary of both sides’ positions on the three main issues, based on interviews with negotiators:
• Salary increases. The school board has offered teachers a bump of 2 percent in “new money,” meaning the overall cost of salaries would rise 2 percent.
“This number is almost double the inflation rate for the region,” Conlon said. “The offer comes at the conclusion of a contract where average teacher salary increases were significantly higher than the rate of inflation in order to bring all salary levels in the district to an equal level.”
Chris Eaton is part of the ACSD board’s negotiating team. He said the board intentionally did not attach a lot of qualifiers to the 2-percent figure.
“We didn’t define that,” he said. “We figured that would be something that would be negotiated with the teachers, in terms of whether is would be as part of a step (increase), or added to the base. The way the money is applied is something we can talk about together.”
It was in April of 2014 that the then-Addison Central Supervisory Union board and the three teachers’ unions signed off on the current, three-year agreement that gave educators average annual salary increases of around 3.6 percent and required them to pay 15 percent of their health care premiums by the third year of the pact. The agreement achieved the district’s goal of creating financial parity among its elementary school and secondary school educators.
O’Connor said the union’s most recent request was for a 4.5-percent pay increase, and he elaborated on the proposal in an email.
“Our last proposal for pay was 2.5 increase on the base,” he said. “Step (increases) are 2 percent, so it comes out to 4.5 percent. If no one retired and a bunch of people earned higher degrees, it could go up. If a small number of staff earned higher degrees and a few staff retire, it could go down. We have no way of predicting these scenarios. We view it as 4.5 percent increase and we expressed that to the board.”
O’Connor said the union has tried to negotiate major terms of the pact as a package, rather than as separate salary, insurance and length of school day issues.
“We are going in with no absolutes,” O’Connor said.
• Length of school day. The school board is asking teachers to bump their workday from the current 6 hours, 45 minutes to 7.5 hours.
Conlon said a 7.5-hour workday would get the ACSD teachers “on par with other districts throughout Vermont and to have time for greater collaboration and increased student opportunities.”
Teachers, meanwhile, have floated a 7-hour workday, according to negotiators.
O’Connor noted teachers routinely do related work beyond the contracted school day.
“The length of day is when are required to be in the building,” he said. “Obviously, there is a significant amount of work we do beyond the school day.”
• Health insurance. Beginning January 2018, teachers in all school districts in Vermont must choose from a menu of new health care offerings from the Vermont Education Health Initiative (VEHI), according to Conlon. The new health plans are more similar to the health insurance plans offered through the state-run Vermont Health Connect, he said. The ACSD board has offered to all teachers a health care benefit that maintains high-quality health insurance, but costs teachers and the school district less money, according to a press release from the ACSD board.
The proposed benefit maintains the same “minimal out-of-pocket exposure as their current health plan,” according to the board’s press release. In addition, the school board has offered a health savings account to cover the out of pocket exposure. The total offer would save school district taxpayers money compared to today’s health insurance costs paid by the school district, according to Conlon.
“We have a rare opportunity to actually save money on health care costs without changing the financial exposure of teachers, and provide them with more control over how their health care dollars are spent,” Conlon said.
Essentially, the board is offering teachers the choice of either a Health Reimbursement Account (HRA) or a Health Savings Account (HSA).
An HRA is a plan through which an employer either partially or fully reimburses workers for their out-of-pocket medical expenses.
An HSA is a medical savings account, with tax advantages, that is owned and managed by the recipient.
Eaton said the board’s proposed health care benefit — if accepted by teachers — has the potential to save district taxpayers “in the $350,000 range,” and even more, depending on the collective health of those receiving the coverage.
Board negotiators said they are trying to limit the teachers’ out-of-pocket health care costs to around $400 per year per person receiving coverage.
O’Connor said he doesn’t believe the school board and teachers are very far apart on the health care issue. But the teachers’ union isn’t enthused about the proposed HSA options.
“What we’re trying to do is protect the (health) benefit for people who need it,” O’Connor said, as opposed to supporting a mechanism like an HSA that he said “rewards people if they don’t use their health care.
“That seems like a slippery slope,” he added about the HSA option. “I think that opens up the door to someone making decisions that might hurt themselves. And I think overall that doing that will cost the board more money.”
The teachers’ union is more comfortable with an HRA plan, according to O’Connor, which he believes benefits the teachers and district taxpayers.
“The (district) gets to keep the money that’s not used,” he said. “We feel that in the long run, it makes more sense.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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