Mount Abe school district settles teacher and support staff contracts

BRISTOL — School boards and unions representing teachers and support staff in the Bristol-area schools late last month ratified new teacher and support staff contracts that cover the next two school years.
On the whole, employees will see pay increases in each of the two years and their contribution to health insurance will rise after Jan. 1, 2018.
Negotiators for the boards and employees said the district will be in good shape despite the anticipated $13 million in cuts to the state Education Fund, the result of an eleventh-hour compromise to the state budget after Gov. Phil Scott threatened a veto.
“We were very pleased to have reached an agreement that fit within the budgeted amounts for salaries and health insurance,” Superintendent Patrick Reen said. “In addition, we are confident the health insurance portion of the agreement will produce sufficient enough savings that we will be able to absorb the anticipated reduction in funding as determined by recent legislative action.”
Negotiators said that the district had crafted its budgets with the recent gubernatorial-legislative debate over lowering health insurance costs in mind and that the timing of negotiations favored those who hammered out school employee contracts later in the process.
With this year’s negotiations, MAUSD also became among the first Vermont school districts to embrace a collaborative approach to bargaining. Negotiations were conducted and contract agreements were reached using the Critical Issues Bargaining process, which participants said takes a win-win approach to contract negotiations. It does this by getting stakeholders to work toward common goals rather than negotiate from fixed positions (see related story by clicking here).
The schools in the 5-town area are transitioning to become a unified school district that will be final next June 30. At this point the incumbent legal entity (Addison Northeast Supervisory Union) and new district (Mount Abraham Union School District) are operating and so both signed the contract. We default to the MAUSD in the story to encompass both boards.
The new teacher contract ratified by members of the Addison Northeast Education Association (ANEDA) feature changes in salaries and health care coverage.
For salaries, the contract awards teachers:
•  3 percent new money this year and 3 percent new money next year. This doesn’t mean all teachers will get a 3-percent annual raise; it means the overall cost of salaries will rise by 3 percent.
For health insurance, the contract:
•  Maintains the status quo, July 1–Dec. 31.
•  Provides an 83/17 split, Jan. 1–June 30, 2018. MAUSD pay 83 percent of premiums on the VEHI Gold CDHP plan (or equivalent) and teachers pay 17 percent.
•  Provides an 84/16 split for fiscal year 2019.
•  Provides an 85/15 split on maximum out-of-pocket costs. Teachers would pay “first dollars” up to 15 percent of the maximum out-of-pocket costs on the VEHI Gold CDHP plan, and the board would assume the balance.
Chair of the MAUSD Bargaining Council Kristin Blanchette and ANEDA Co-president Mikaela Frank noted that equity was an important concern in negotiating how to apply the 3 percent new money to the salary grid (whereby teacher salaries are aligned to education and experience). The goal was to make the district more attractive to new and younger teachers, while continuing to compensate fairly. In past years, for example, Blanchette noted, a typical approach might have been to apply 1 percent to teachers lower on the grid and 2 percent to teachers with more education and experience. The new grid tries to spread that out more evenly.
“The indexed grid has been altered slightly to weigh more towards raising the base to make (this district) more competitive and attractive to new hires,” said Blanchette. “This works toward creating more equity in salaries and sustainability over time.”
Blanchette also noted that teachers would get the equivalent Gold CDHP amount towards any plan they choose.
The support staff contract awards similar salary and health insurance provisions.
For salaries, the contract awards ANEDA Education Support Personnel (ESP) members:
•  3 percent new money this year and 3 percent new money next year.
For health insurance, the contract:
•  Maintains the status quo, July 1–Dec. 31.
•  Provides an 88/12 premium split, Jan. 1–June 30, 2018, for most employees.
•  Provides an 89/11 premium split for fiscal year 2019.
•  Provides an 85/15 split on maximum out-of-pocket costs.
As with the teacher health insurance options, support staff choosing a different healthcare plan would get the equivalent Gold CDHP amount towards any plan.
ESP representative Deirdre Zele said all support staff will get a 3 percent salary increase. She explained that in negotiating what percentage of health insurance premiums employees would pay, it was important to take into account the wide range of percentages that ESP employees brought to the table.
“In our support staff units there was a huge spread of percentages for health insurance from 70/30 all the way up to 100/0,” said Zele. “So we decided collectively to phase them into that so they didn’t have a huge drop in what their benefit was to what it is now.”
Zele said that a handful of support staff members would be phased in with a separate 93/7 percent premium split over the first six months of calendar year 2018.
Key to understanding the health insurance part of MAUSD’s new teacher and support staff contracts is understanding the agreement reached last month between Gov. Scott and the Legislature in special session, after Scott threatened to veto the state budget unless changes were made to health care funding for public school employees.
At issue — and roundly debated during the 2017 legislative session — was the timing and mechanism by which schools would be encouraged to seek savings through the new health insurance plans that will become available through the Vermont Education Health Initiative beginning Jan. 1, 2018. (VEHI is the nonprofit that for decades has supplied health insurance coverage for the state’s public school teachers.)
The new VEHI plans were designed in response to changes mandated through the Affordable Care Act and offer four levels of coverage: VEHI Platinum, VEHI Gold, VEHI Gold CDHP (Consumer-Directed Health Plan), VEHI Silver CDHP.
Using these new VEHI plans, the Scott-legislative deal sets benchmarks for school districts in negotiating health insurance coverage, including:
•  Using the Gold CDHP plan as the statewide standard.
•  Having an 80/20 premium split, in which teachers pay at least 20 percent of the cost of health insurance premiums.
•  Having employees pay at least $400 in out-of-pocket health insurance costs.
The deal holds schools fiscally accountable for meeting these benchmarks by taking the estimated savings if all schools met the benchmarks and reducing disbursements to all school districts accordingly (with a 5 percent buffer). Following this formula, $13 million will be cut from the state’s Education Fund over the next two years: $8.5 million in fiscal year 2018 and $4.5 million in fiscal year 2019. The $13 million in cuts to the Education Fund will be redirected to reduce property tax rates statewide.
It’s anticipated, however, that the late June timing of the Scott-legislative deal could likely leave many schools facing budget cuts. Addison County schools have been affected differently by this legislation, in part depending on the timing of their contract negotiations. Vergennes-area schools are still negotiating and so will have time to take the changes under consideration. Addison Central School District teachers and school boards OK’d their contract just before the recent legislative changes were enacted and might face additional budget cuts. District representatives say that they are crunching the numbers to see how to respond.
MAUSD’s Blanchette criticized the Scott administration’s timing and tactics but said that the district “will be fine.”
“The administration at the state level chose to do this at such a late time that those people (districts that concluded contract negotiations before the June 21 legislative emergency session) couldn’t have anticipated it. At the state level, decisions were made so late that the rug was pulled out from under them,” she said. “We luckily had enough time to factor that in.”
Blanchette also praised Superintendent Reen and other central office officials for having the foresight to plan within the VEHI Gold CDHP and other parameters.
“Our administration had the foresight to factor that into our budget this year,” said Blanchette. “So our taxpayers would have been saving money anyway, but now it’s going to the state.”
Blanchette continued: “Premiums are so much lower on these new plans that the governor was right: There’s a lot of money to be saved. So what the administration did and the boards did is we factored that into our overall budget picture. I think that was a very shrewd move on the part of the administration.”
ANEDA’s Frank said that teachers also came to the table well aware of the health care funding debate:
“When we were negotiating, we had that in mind — the potential amount of money that was going to be withheld from the district.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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