No deal in latest Burlington school talks, but new round set

Mark Porter, Fran Brock, Burlington

Fran Brock, Burlington Education Association president, left, and Mark Porter, Burlington School Board chair, center, during contract talks last fall. With them is Ira Lobel, a mediator who was working with the two sides. File photo by Morgan True/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — Negotiators for the city school district and its teachers are to resume contract talks next month after failing to reach a deal during a marathon session with a mediator last week.

Independent mediator Michael Ryan, who is working on the talks with the school board and the Burlington Education Association, said the main sticking points remain health care, salaries and operational changes.

The gap in salary proposals is vast. The union called for a 5.74 percent increase in salaries, while the board offered 0.5 percent.

The current contract expires Aug. 31. The next round of negotiations is set for May 31.

On the heels of the long negotiation session Tuesday, Ryan issued a joint statement in which both sides agreed not to speak publicly about details of the negotiations.

“I’m optimistic that the parties can reach an agreement,” Ryan said. “They’re both doing work on their own. Hopefully, we can reach an agreement, or at least kick the ball down the road. The parties are very well-represented, and I’m optimistic they’ll work things out.”

School board Chairman Mark Porter confirmed that Ryan asked both school directors and union representatives not to speak publicly about the talks. “It’ll go better on the 31st” if they keep mum, according to Porter.

Porter said a school board negotiations committee meeting took place Thursday. A public comment session was followed by a private session to discuss the negotiations.

Any action by the board would have to happen outside of executive session, but none did.

Fran Brock, president of the Burlington Education Association, said she “finds it all encouraging.” The union represents about 400 teachers and para-educators in the district.

Brock is a longtime history teacher at Burlington High School, and she has witnessed a number of face-offs between the board and city educators. Brock is a familiar voice during public comment sessions of board meetings, advocating for funding to attract and retain highly qualified teachers and to stem the erosion of educational programming and services for students.

Burlington School District

The Burlington School District central office. Courtesy photo

The union said its pay request would put Burlington School District personnel fourth out of eight Chittenden County districts.

“There’s a financial cost to all benefits,” said Ryan. “Things like days off have a financial impact.”

Erik Wells, communications specialist for the Burlington School District, also declined to comment on any specifics of the negotiations.

The current one-year agreement was reached in October after the district imposed contract terms and the teachers voted to strike.

Residents and taxpayers interviewed last week expressed respect for the teachers, but many also offered concerns about property taxes.

Cathy Anderson was shopping Friday at Hannaford Supermarket in the Queen City’s New North End. She and her husband have two daughters who graduated from Burlington schools and are in college.

“I’m always supportive of the teachers,” Anderson said. “I’m not always supportive of the pay increases. I think the teachers have to be reasonable.”

Betty Kaumeyer moved to Burlington 18 years ago and has a great-grandson in the Burlington School District. She said she is concerned about the city’s tax rate.

“Taxes keep going up,” she said. “I feel bad for the teachers, but it’s going to keep falling on the taxpayers.”

Roberta Proulx was in a bagel café on North Avenue with her grandchildren. She worked in the Burlington School District for 31 years and called on school directors to keep student needs at the center of contract negotiations.

“I feel it’s all about the kids, and I felt that way when I was working,” she said. “I feel it doesn’t feel that way as much now, and it’s not from the teachers. I feel it’s more from the board.”

Melissa Dinah isn’t a Burlington resident but owns residential property in the Queen City. She said her pocketbook can no longer sustain the rising cost of Burlington’s property taxes.

“This is my personal opinion, but I feel the teachers are paid very well because their salaries seem to increase every year,” said Dinah, who has family members who live in Burlington. “I can’t increase the rent I charge, because the people can’t afford it. Property taxes go up every year in Burlington.”

The Burlington city clerk and treasurer’s office said the fiscal 2017 education tax rate for homestead properties is $1.7237 per $100 of assessed value. The nonresidential rate, which covers rental and non-primary residence properties, is $1.8161.

According to the Vermont Department of Taxes, the rates in fiscal year 2012 were $1.3019 and $1.5441, respectively.

The Vermont-NEA isn’t surprised that a mediator is present at the negotiating table. “In general, mediation is a normal part of settling a contract,” said Vermont-NEA spokesperson Darren Allen. “Our hope is always that it leads to a settlement.”

Allen also said Ryan’s announcement that neither the board nor the union will talk publicly about the negotiations falls in line with accepted practices. “For a mediator to come out of a session to issue a joint statement isn’t unusual,” Allen said.

If no agreement is hammered out by May 31, the mediator will serve as a fact-finder. The board declared an impasse in the negotiations March 17.

Gail Callahan

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