Education

Vermont NEA: Scott’s statewide health contract is ‘out of Trump’s anti-union playbook’

Phil Scott
Gov. Phil Scott. Photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger
A meeting held Thursday afternoon at the Statehouse about a statewide health contract for teachers started out as a conversation between stakeholders and quickly escalated into a showdown between the state’s largest union, school boards and the Scott administration.

In a final attempt this legislative session to reduce taxpayer liability for public schools, Gov. Phil Scott proposed that the state negotiate teachers’ health insurance benefits, starting this year.

Rebecca Kelley, Scott’s communications director, described it as “a win for taxpayers, a win for teachers and a win for our education system as a whole.”

A half hour after the meeting, the state teacher’s union rejected the proposal in a blistering email sent to the media. Jeff Fannon, the executive director of the Vermont NEA, said the governor’s plan would undermine the collective bargaining process, which is done at the local level.

“It would fundamentally alter the nature of the give and take in any collective bargaining session,” Fannon said.

Martha Allen, the Vermont NEA president and a librarian at a school in Canaan, said the Scott administration’s “assault on collective bargaining is straight out of the Donald Trump and Scott Walker anti-union playbook.”

Kelley said the Vermont NEA “walked away” from the meeting “with an apparent unwillingness to even consider this discussion.”

This year, the state teachers health care system is moving from so-called “Cadillac” insurance plans to lower cost insurance programs with higher co-pays because of a mandate under the Affordable Care Act. And so, for the first time, the health care component of teacher contracts is being negotiated in the same year by all 60 local supervisory unions.

Under four different medical insurance plans developed by the Vermont Education Health Initiative, teachers are held harmless for additional costs associated with higher premiums and copays.

Teachers are hoping to make up the difference in the lower actuarial value of the plans with higher salaries. The value of current teacher insurance plans is 9 percent higher than the platinum plan offered through Vermont Health Connect.

As Fannon put it, “a lot of the exposure has to be accounted for in bargaining with employers now.”

Fannon objects to Scott’s proposal because teachers would no longer negotiate with their employers — local school boards — but instead would be forced to bargain with the Scott administration. The union prefers to continue to negotiate district by district.

And moving the health benefit to a statewide contract would take a bargaining chip away from teachers. “If you take that one big item it magnifies the other issues left to negotiate, and then you’re bargaining with two entities — one being your employer and the other is not your employer,” Fannon said.

The switch to VEHI’s new health insurance plans, which goes into effect on January 1, 2018, is expected to save about $26 million.

Scott wants the savings to go to lower the statewide property tax — not to higher teacher salaries — and he proposed that the state scoop up the savings in his January inaugural address.

Since February, the Scott administration has been working with the Vermont School Boards Association and the Vermont Superintendents Association to develop a proposal that would reduce Education Fund spending. The system costs about $1.6 billion per year, most of which is borne by property taxpayers through local and state taxes. Vermont has among the highest spending rates per pupil in the nation.

With just two weeks to go in the legislative session, Scott proposed the statewide health care contract as a way to capture savings for the Education Fund.

It was the first time the Vermont NEA had seen the plan.

In a press release blast, the Vermont NEA claimed that legislative leadership had said the proposal “should be rejected out of hand by the General Assembly.”

Problem was, neither Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson actually said that.

Their response to the proposal was much more muted. Both said it was too late in the legislative session to adopt a major change to the way contracts are negotiated with teachers.

Ashe said he wouldn’t comment about a meeting he believed was a private discussion. The proposal, he said, was a “real departure” from current collective bargaining practice and “even if it was a wonderful idea,” the timing was challenging.

Johnson said there is little evidence that a centralized negotiations would yield better results than negotiations district by district. Johnson opposes the idea of the shifting the savings to the Education Fund. It’s appropriate that savings with the new insurance program, she said, be handled at the local level. She criticized the governor for not proposing the contract so late in the session.

“We’ve known this was going to happen for a long time,” Johnson said. “If this was the plan than put it out in January.”

“The big hurdle was we’re just a couple of weeks from the end of the session and this was the first time the NEA saw it,” Johnson said. “It’s really a substantial change for this late in the session. It would be a substantial change to labor law. When there is so little time to work out differences, it’s tough.”

Democrats and the Vermont NEA have said increases in health care insurance premiums is a main driver for high spending by local schools.

In testimony to the Legislature in 2015, Joel Cook, the former director of the union, blamed “the inexorable growth in health care costs” for rising school expenditures.

The Scott administration says the statewide health contract is the best way to control costs going forward.

Jeff Francis, the executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, says if the administration and the teachers union can’t come to an agreement the plan won’t move forward.

“We’re in a period of transition, and we’re dealing with the fact that we have rising costs and declining student population,” Francis said. “Who knows what will happen, but it was reasonable for the governor to explore it.”

School boards are under a great deal of pressure to control costs, and Nicole Mace, the executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, believes that the new plans and the statewide health contract would help.

Mace says she met with the Vermont NEA to discuss options for health care last fall after the union “sent signals” that the benefit was going to be an issue in upcoming negotiations.

She floated the statewide health contract proposal to legislative leadership in February.

The VEHI change in health care plans is a one-time opportunity, she said, for the state to realize savings for the Education Fund.

And she says it’s unlikely that local districts will be able to realize savings “organically” in negotiations with the union.

“My sense is there is a tremendous variability locally and we don’t know where the new level will be,” Mace said.

Business managers are booking the same level of spending for teachers next year — despite the potential for health care savings.

If the governor’s proposal was successful, negotiations over health care benefits would happen once — as opposed to 50 times over locally.

A third of teacher negotiations now underway are at impasse, she said.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 7:02 a.m. April 21.

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  • Jay Nichols

    If you keep doing what you have always done you will not get different results. School Boards are typically community members with very little training or knowledge in the collective bargaining process. Add to that the deep complexity of changes in health insurance, local boards are at a major disadvantage competing with well trained union negotiators. To it’s credit, VTNEA does a great job of providing training and support to local union officials. We have a statewide system now of raising funds to pay for schools. Local decisions of a financial nature impact everyone else. The amount of money, time, and effort spent negotiating local contracts is immense. In such a small state in terms of population, it would seem to me that it would make sense for VTNEA, School Boards, and state government to at least look at ways in which they could work together to avoid all the duplication of efforts and squandering of resources that occurs in our current “local control” bargaining system that would be better spent on student programs, better pay for teachers, and taxpayer relief. In full disclosure, I am a superintendent who is retiring on June 30th and we have already negotiated a 2-year contract in which our Boards and Union worked together to protect teachers (health insurance) while providing savings to our school districts. I applaud the Governor for calling the question on statewide bargaining of health insurance for educators, although as VTNEA and others assert, it should have happened earlier in the legislative session.

  • wendywilton

    Everyone must be ready to contribute to help solve the tax problem. This is a reasonable idea. I support Governor Scott on this.

  • Edward Letourneau

    I don’t see why taxpayers should be paying for teacher benefits that the taxpayers themselves cannot get or afford. Frankly, I favor not replacing any retiring teachers until the cost of education comes down. With a 5 to 1 student-staff state wide ratio, there is plenty of room to eliminate positions.

  • Peter Chick

    The NEA is holding our children’s education hostage.

  • Stu Lindberg

    The Vermont NEA is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Montpelier. No legislation regarding education or social services gets passed without the endorsement of this organization. The NEA union bosses masterfully play the “poor pitiful underpaid overworked teachers” strategy to the detriment of students and taxpayers. A majority of teachers have no idea exactly what their union is doing on their behalf. The ones that do have a far left ideological agenda that has nothing to do with the betterment of any student. The agenda is about more pay, more benefits, less work and more power.

  • Paul Richards

    Great article.
    “Under four different medical insurance plans developed by the Vermont Education Health Initiative, teachers are held harmless for additional costs…”
    The teachers don’t want to be harmed by anything. They are enjoying their lives living in a bubble, never feeling what the rest of us do every day.
    “The union prefers to continue to negotiate district by district.”
    They like that because they get the benefit of a united front. The same professional, paid and very capable NEA lawyers work every board in the state. The boards are not one united front and are not professional, single purpose lawyers, neither are the lawyers they hire to help them. So the NEA lawyers find different weak spots in every district through fear and intimidation and expert “negotiation”. What they get from one district is played against what they are not getting in another district. How many times have you seen the NEA say that this district gets less than another? It’s just playing one against the other to get all they can when in reality it’s all just one big monopoly. The taxpayers are bidding against themselves.
    “Johnson opposes the idea of the shifting the savings to the Education Fund. ”
    This is code language for; give it to the teachers.
    “The VEHI change in health care plans is a one-time opportunity, she said, for the state to realize savings for the Education Fund.”
    Good luck with that. The teachers are pounding on the door with their hands out.
    There is only one way to resolve this; revert back to illegal status for public sector unions and put the power to manage back into the hands of the managers and taxpayers. Or continue to let the tail wag the dog.

  • Neil Johnson

    Give them the same money as last year and let them buy what ever health insurance they please! Pretty simple. Perhaps they’ll suddenly have a different view of the ACA, something we’ve been stuck with for 8 years!

    Instead we have union lobbyist that control our government, demanding things that normal Vermonters can not even purchase.

    This entire healthcare is a scam that has allowed monopolies and lobbyists who wrote the ACA to steal from the American Public.

    Hang in there Governor Scott! It takes time for the truth to come out.

  • Ritva Burton

    Finally, there could be some hope for property taxes to go down or at least not keep going up to the point that more and more Vermonters cannot afford a home! I fully support Gov. Scott’s proposal. Ms. Johnson stated this “has been the plan since January” so not having enough time to implement this insurance plan is not a good enough excuse.

  • Jim Manahan

    It must be a good idea if the NEA is fighting it.

    Jeff Fannon, the executive director of the Vermont NEA continues his dishonesty when he says collective bargaining is done at the local level. The NEA brings in all the resources they want to overwhelm the local school boards, which makes for an uneven playing field when they don’t limit their resources to the local level. That is why they want to continue negotiating district by district; divide and conquer.

  • Glenn Thompson

    We can only assume the NEA and the Democrats in Montpelier have no desire to control costs?

    • wendywilton

      You seem to be correct on that. The Democratic Party is beholden to the VTNEA for $300,000 per year in donations. They are merely dancing with those who brung them.

      • Matt Young

        Let’s not forget that the NEA funds the Colorado based, “national education policy center” the director of which is on the Vermont board of education, a huge, glaring conflict of interest.

  • Daniel Carver

    Since the adoption of Act 68, it has been time to terminate the “local bargaining” process for public school teachers in Vermont The school boards do not represent the people paying for the school budgets.

    Prior to the recent increase in the “income sensitivity” threshold, roughly 67% of Vermont households qualified for tax relief. With a 50% increase of the threshold from $ 90 k to $ 135 k, I will be curious to see what percent of Vermont homeowners are deemed as not being able to afford their school taxes. (93% – SWAG)
    As an aside, income sensitivity needs to be means tested. There are many wealthy Vermonters who work with their financial planners to ensure investments are divested in qualified income areas which allow them to take advantage of our naiveté. If a person has qualified for $8 k of relief for the last 20 years, that’s $ 160 k of tax free money. As the rich get richer!
    Back to local bargaining, in some of our most rural districts the school is the largest and best paying employer. Are the local voters going to put their neighbors, cousins, nephews etc out of work, or demand no pay increase? Not when some unknown sucker has to pay the bills!. What a system!
    Kudos to Governor Scott for the proposal. If only the majority of our legislators would remember to work for ALL Vermonters, as the minority of them do, and not the high paid lobbyists. (Kudos to the few!)

  • John Freitag

    Negotiating a statewide teachers health contract is an extremely reasonable proposal that deserves serious consideration. Uniformed health benefits for teachers statewide would be far simpler and fairer than the current situation of some 60 separate contracts. Another benefit is that it would also allow teachers, school board members and administrators to spend time on their common purpose of meeting the educational needs of our children, instead of often time consuming and divisive negotiations.

    It would also make a far more even negotiating field. Currently NEA provides trained extremely well paid staff to help teachers negotiate contracts . On the other side are volunteer school board members, many of whom often have children in the classes of the teachers they are negotiating with. No wonder that teachers over the years have ended up with so called “Cadillac plans” which are better even than the gold plan offered by Vermont Health Connect. No wonder the NEA is so vehemently opposed to this proposal.

    This is one of those defining issues that allow voters to determine if a legislators priority is to protect benefits for a well entrenched special interest group or the public good. Governor Scott should be commended for being willing to bring changing to a statewide health contract for teachers to the table.

  • Paul Richards

    Great article. “Under four different medical insurance plans developed by the Vermont Education Health Initiative, teachers are held harmless for additional costs…” The teachers don’t want to be harmed by anything. They are enjoying their lives living in a bubble, never feeling what the rest of us do every day. “The union prefers to continue to negotiate district by district.” They like that because they get the benefit of a united front. The same professional, paid and very capable NEA lawyers work every board in the state. The boards are not one united front and are not professional, single purpose lawyers, neither are the lawyers they hire to help them. So the NEA lawyers find different weak spots in every district through fear and intimidation and expert “negotiation”. What they get from one district is played against what they are not getting in another district. How many times have you seen the NEA say that this district gets less than another? It’s just playing one against the other to get all they can when in reality it’s all just one big monopoly. The taxpayers are bidding against themselves. “Johnson opposes the idea of the shifting the savings to the Education Fund. ” This is code language for; give it to the teachers. “The VEHI change in health care plans is a one-time opportunity, she said, for the state to realize savings for the Education Fund.” Good luck with that. The teachers are pounding on the door with their hands out. There is only one way to resolve this; revert back to illegal status for public sector unions and put the power to manage back into the hands of the managers and taxpayers. Or continue to let the tail wag the dog.

  • Steve Baker

    Anything to get teachers/unions to pay their “fair share” and bring “equality” to their benefits versus the average hard-working taxpayers of Vermont will always be tarred and feathered with the “Trump” agenda.
    It would be interesting to have VT Digger do and in-depth investigation of where school budgets go today versus 20 years ago.
    It seems so simple, but where’s the “transparency”?

  • Paul Richards

    Great article. “Under four different medical insurance plans developed by the Vermont Education Health Initiative, teachers are held harmless for additional costs…” The teachers don’t want to be harmed by anything. They are enjoying their lives living in a bubble, never feeling what the rest of us do every day. “The union prefers to continue to negotiate district by district.” They like that because they get the benefit of a united front. The same professional, paid and very capable NEA lawyers work every board in the state. The boards are not one united front and are not professional, single purpose lawyers, neither are the lawyers they hire to help them. So the NEA lawyers find different weak spots in every district through fear and intimidation and expert “negotiation”. What they get from one district is played against what they are not getting in another district. How many times have you seen the NEA say that this district gets less than another? It’s just playing one against the other to get all they can when in reality it’s all just one big monopoly. The taxpayers are bidding against themselves. “Johnson opposes the idea of the shifting the savings to the Education Fund. ” This is code language for; give it to the teachers. “The VEHI change in health care plans is a one-time opportunity, she said, for the state to realize savings for the Education Fund.” Good luck with that. The teachers are pounding on the door with their hands out. There is only one way to resolve this; revert back to illegal status for public sector unions and put the power to manage back into the hands of the managers and taxpayers. Or continue to let the tail wag the dog.

  • Matt Young

    Governor Scott is trying to find solutions to our states pretty serious financial problems that have been added to or ignored for several years. The teachers unions portrayal of our governor as Trumplike is pretty sophomoric. We need real education reform in our state, a good start would be making public education unions illegal. Find out who among our elected officials has an independent mind and who is a public education monopoly puppet, then vote accordingly in the next election. We should also demand the removal of anyone on the state board of education who is being paid by any teachers union funded organization.

  • Adrienne Raymond

    Taking health insurance off the plate of school boards would be a huge boon to bargaining. The number of negotiations in impasse this year is growing every week. Think of the money saved in mediation and fact-finding charges, if this sticking point were removed. In fact, I would support statewide bargaining of all direct “money” articles. Salary, insurance , severance, leaves, professional development funds, all directly affect costs and are fought for strongly from the union side using a strategic, statewide perspective. I see nothing wrong with unions working to protect their members, but there must be a balance of power in the negotiation process. Currently the majority of power is in the hands of the VTNEA.

  • Jamie Carter

    Remember, it’s all about the children… er…and health insurance.

  • John McClaughry

    What puzzles me is that the Vermont-NEA ardently supported state-level single payer health care for all (so long as it could be assured of keeping its platinum benefit levels).
    Three years ago I remarked here https://vtdigger.org/2014/03/04/john-mcclaughry-coming-soon-one-big-school-system/ that “the rush to consolidation will soon bring us to the unavoidable outcome: One Big School System. All expenditures will be allocated by the Agency of Education among mega-districts. .. There will be a uniform statewide education homestead property tax, one big teachers’ union contract negotiated in
    Montpelier, and no more pesky local school boards (just fig-leaf “advisory
    committees”).
    If there is a statewide teachers’ health insurance plan, the union will have to retain control of the legislature to make sure it keeps paying the platinum premiums.

  • Steve Baker

    Any chance VT Digger can layout the Salary/Benefit/Pension from this round of contracts and compare it to contracts from 20 years ago?
    Most non-teacher, non-state employee, non-union Vermont professional have seen their benefits become more and more costly over the past decades. Public employee unions have gone the opposite direction to the point it’s killing our budgets.

  • Dave Bellini

    If the goal is lower property taxes, this seems like an uncertain, indirect approach. The best way to contain property taxes is through legislation that caps the tax based on a ratio of the home value. Simple, transparent, predictable. It doesn’t have to be draconian. It would tax wealthy property owners more. There’s several ways to do this. People want predictability, fairness and control. Another way to fund education is with an income tax. Different ways to structure this as well. All are preferable to the impossible to understand, ever changing, series of laws, formulas and half-baked ideas everyone is forced to live with. Make it simple, make it fair. Take the politics out of it. It doesn’t have to be this difficult.

    • Joyce Hottenstein

      Your property taxes should not be based on income. It should be based on the value if the property you own. That is how the trustfunders are living on our dime. Live in an expensive house have a capped income and your neighbors pay your property taxes for you. This system is fubar.

      • Matt Young

        Why should property taxes be higher if a family has a large house? Does a large house mean that someone is wealthy? Why should we discriminate against this particular type of “wealth.”

        • wendywilton

          Reality is Matt that there are very few large families anymore. Once someone reaches retirement age and the house is too big, it makes sense to downsize. The state should not be encouraging people to hang onto property they can’t afford through tax breaks. And Joyce is right, the trust funders are making out like bandits with the rest of us paying the freight because they can manage their incomes to fit the formula with a big fancy house to boot, while working people pay it all. This could be fixed with the current system by implementing a test for assets on the income form…if your assets are over say $500,000 you don’t qualify for the break.

          • Matt Young

            So you would like to decide that “someone’s house is too big?” Why don’t we decide that someone has too much in savings or goes on too many vacations? Maybe tax folks that have summers off? Someone having a large home doesn’t cause you any harm, nor does a large house cost a town anything extra. Maybe if we tax Cadillac health plans or the amount of retirement someone is getting at a young age, then we could take in some real dough.

          • wendywilton

            Not saying the state should instruct someone when to sell or retain real estate. But the current warped system encourages people to be insensitive to economic conditions that would normally cause people to make common sense decisions. In the end this is costing the state millions in the Ed Fund. It is wrong headed policy by default.

          • Matt Young

            A large house doesn’t cost the state a penny. Why in the world would you care how big your neighbors house is? If they live in a tiny house and pay less in taxes would that make you happier?! We have a union induced spending problem not a underfunding problem.

    • wendywilton

      We changed the health care coverage in Rutland City to a high deductible plan and offered similar benefits to employees and saved the City over $250,000 per year. It’s time for the VTNEA to get with the program. After all, they wholehearredly supported the creation of VHC which forced Vermonters to change their healthcare plans…so why are they unwilling to do their part to reduce cost? Tall hogs at the trough.

  • Rick Cowan

    Comparing Phil Scott to Donald Trump is both nasty and unproductive. Thanks, Martha Allen, for yet more incendiary comments. Amazing that our Democratic senators and representatives continue to kowtow to a union with this kind of loose cannon leadership. Remember when she threatened to kill Shumlin’s candidacy when he suggested that damaging strikes might not be the best way to resolve wage disputes?

  • SnoCamo

    I think it is generally agreed that the school budget increases are unsubtainable.

    The process here is backward. The school budget should be voted on Town Meeting Day before teacher contracts are signed. Once the school adminstrators have a budget, they can decide how many teachers and staff they can afford.

    And the teachers can decide if more teachers with health care equivalent to the taxpayer is more important than less teachers with gold plated health care. If it was truly about the quality of education, the choice should be obvious.

  • Come on folks, we know the union has this and Phil in the bag.

  • Paul Richards

    It’s hard to imagine now but there was a time when public sector unions were not allowed. They are not constitutional.
    These public sector unions have stolen our ability to govern them.
    Courts across the nation have generally held that collective bargaining by government workers should be forbidden on the legal grounds of sovereign immunity and unconstitutional delegation of government powers. This was before the liberals packed the court. In 1943, a New York Supreme Court judge held: To tolerate or recognize any combination of civil service employees of the government as a labor organization or union is not only incompatible with the spirit of democracy, but inconsistent with every principle upon which our government is founded. Nothing is more dangerous to public welfare than to admit that hired servants of the State can dictate to the government the hours, the wages and conditions under which they will carry on essential services vital to the welfare, safety, and security of the citizen. To admit as true that government employees have power to halt or check the functions of government unless their demands are satisfied, is to transfer to them all legislative, executive and judicial power. Nothing would be more ridiculous.” This is what we have; a ridiculous mess with a runaway train. Public sector unions should be outlawed again.

  • Engdahl Johnson

    Executive order raises big questions for ACA markets, Medicaid
    and small employers. Milliman provides this perspective: https://www.healthcaretownhall.com/?p=8404#sthash.hZxlcugA.dpbs