ACSD schools ratify two-year teacher contract, but a financial penalty looms

MIDDLEBURY — The Addison Central School District (ACSD) board and local teachers have ratified a new, two-year labor agreement that includes a 3-percent annual increase in new money for salaries, extends the length of the school day, and requires educators to take on a greater share of their health insurance premiums.
But some ACSD negotiators are now wishing they had waited a little longer before finalizing the new pact.
That’s because only hours after both sides had ratified the deal, the state Legislature last Wednesday approved a new health care compensation benchmark for public school employees that is less generous than the one ACSD teachers will receive during the next two years. As a result, ACSD will be penalized a portion of its state aid next year, as stipulated in the new legislation.
As the Addison Independent went to press on Friday, ACSD business manager Josh Quinn was still calculating the exact amount of state aid the district is in line to lose as a result of the state’s new guideline health insurance directive.
“Many of us (in the Legislature) held our noses and voted for the (health care) agreement,” said Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, who serves on the House Education Committee and is chairman of the ACSD board.
“Nobody liked it, but the governor was holding the (state) budget hostage, and a compromise had to be reached.”
ACSD and representatives of the district’s three teachers’ unions had been negotiating in open session since last October. The three unions — the Middlebury Education Association, Middlebury Education Teachers Association and Addison Central Education Association — negotiated together for a single agreement for the district’s combined 230 teachers.
The two sides declared an impasse in contract talks in March. The big breakthrough came earlier this month when the school board and teachers agreed to hire veteran arbitrator Ira Lobel to serve as mediator for a new round of talks. Lobel presented both sides with settlement figures culled from other school districts.
Here’s where the sides ended up on the major contract issues:
• Salaries. A 3-percent increase in “new money” for salaries in each of the two years, meaning the overall cost of salaries will rise by 3 percent.
This doesn’t mean all teachers will get a 3-percent annual raise, negotiators stressed.
“Basically, it’s a step increase and a little bit for the built-in salary structure,” said ACSD board member Chris Eaton, who served on the negotiating team.
“The highest-paid teachers aren’t getting a 3-percent pay raise,” said Larry O’Connor, a longtime alternative education teacher at Middlebury Union High School and a member of the union negotiating team. “It means that 3 percent in new money is going into the (salary) pot.”
The school board had offered teachers a bump of 2 percent in new money. The teachers had asked for a 4.5-percent pay increase.
• Length of the school day. The new pact calls for a teacher’s workday of up to 7.5 hours, up from the current 6 hours, 45 minutes.
School board members had been pushing for a 7.5-hour school day to get the ACSD teachers on par with other districts throughout Vermont and to allow them more time to collaborate and increase student opportunities.
O’Connor noted the 7.5 hours also creates consistency within the ACSD.
“This gets everyone on the same schedule,” O’Connor said, noting the varying length of school day through the ACSD’s seven elementary schools and Middlebury Union middle and high schools. The ACSD serves K-12 students in Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge.
• Health insurance. Teachers can choose from four plans offered through the Vermont Education Health Initiative, also known as VEHI. The district has agreed to cover up to 84 percent of premium costs of the health insurance plan in year one and 83.5 percent of those costs in year two, with teachers picking up the rest, according to Eaton.
The accord also entitles teachers to a Health Reimbursement Account (HRA), which calls for teachers to pay 12 percent in out-of-pocket costs up-front, and the district paying the remaining 88 percent.
So for a single plan, the total potential out-of-pocket cost would be $2,500, with the teacher responsible for a maximum of $325 (12 percent) of that sum before the HRA kicks in. For all the other plans, the total potential out-of-pocket cost will be $5,000 and the teacher’s 12 percent share would be $650, Eaton noted.
Any unused portion of the 88 percent in the HRA will return to ACSD, according to Quinn.
“I think both sides gave a little in the areas both were entrenched in,” O’Connor said of the settlement. “The mediator was very important. After 10 hours with him, we had a settlement.”
“It was a challenging year for both sides,” Eaton said. “For our side, and I believe for their side, everyone is really excited that we have been able to come to an agreement in one of the more challenging sessions.”
But the ACSD’s challenges will not end with final ratification of the contract. It remains to be seen how much the new pact will cost the district in state aid due to the new health care legislation. Conlon explained the Legislature has set a threshold of an 80-20 split in health care premium contributions by school boards and teachers, respectively. The ACSD pact calls for annual splits of  84-16 in year one and 85.5 and 16.5 in year two.
“Because we didn’t negotiate to the target, we will have to make up the difference between the smaller education fund payment (from the state) and the actual cost of the health insurance,” Conlon said.
As of June 22, fourteen supervisory unions in Vermont — including the ACSD — had passed new teachers’ contracts to take effect July 1, according to Conlon. So ironically, those more proactive school systems are likely to face the most headaches from the new health insurance legislation.
“I was told that only a few of the 14 have hit the (state’s) benchmark,” Conlon said.
On the brighter side, Conlon said the overall cost of health care premiums is going down, and the new legislation will provide a small financial cushion for districts that are having trouble.
The new legislation also creates a new commission that will study the prospect of making educators’ health insurance a state benefit, instead of having such pacts negotiated locally, Conlon said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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