BURLINGTON — The Burlington School Board has rejected a neutral fact-finder’s salary and health care recommendations for the district’s teachers, claiming the report contains errors in its numbers and analysis.
Contract negotiations between the board and the Burlington Education Association began in February. The two sides declared an impasse in mid-March.
Fact-finder Michael Ryan gave his report to the union and board July 17. The nonbinding document automatically became public 10 days later. Discussions in the meantime did not yield an agreement.
The board’s response comes days after the school board in neighboring South Burlington rejected the recommendations of a fact-finder regarding contract talks in that district.
Stephanie Seguino, the Burlington board’s negotiations chair, said in a statement Thursday that the analysis did not take into account a number of economic situations at local and state levels and examined only a small number of contract settlements from around the state.
“The fact-finder offered helpful analysis in some areas, which we will use as a basis for finding common ground,” Seguino said.
Burlington Education Association President Fran Brock said in a statement that the union was disappointed in failing to reach an agreement through the fact-finding process.
“We thought the mediator’s report gave us a framework for a settlement. Instead, the board’s negotiating team clearly was not interested in using the report to forge a deal,” said Brock, a Burlington High School history teacher. The union’s statement was distributed by the Vermont-NEA.
The school board also said the report contains factual errors. Among those are the assumption that the fiscal year 2018 budget increased 5.8 percent, when the actual increase was 4.3 percent, the board said. That would result in $1.28 million more than the district has available, according to the board’s news release.
However, the report consistently cites the proper figure for the total budget, and as a result it’s unclear where Ryan’s alleged calculation error took place.
Attempts to reach Finance Director Nathan Lavery and Seguino for clarification late Monday afternoon were unsuccessful. Erik Wells, a spokesman for the district, did not address how the incorrect percentage might have impacted the report’s calculations and recommendations.
The district allocated $750,000 for compensation increases in the fiscal 2018 budget that taxpayers approved on Town Meeting Day. Lavery said in January that every 1 percent increase in compensation across the district’s eight bargaining units — of which the teachers union is the largest — represents a roughly $500,000 budget increase.
“We just don’t have the kind of money the fact-finder suggested is available — at least not without cutting programs and reducing staff,” said Mark Porter, school board chair. “The board is loath to consider either of these alternatives after several years of budget cuts that led to loss of programs and staff.”
The board also said Ryan did not account for H.542 (Act 85), the recently passed teacher health care compromise legislation, which requires school districts to negotiate an 80/20 split on premiums or else reduce their budgets. However, the report does contain discussion of the changes to teacher health care.
The board’s current proposal includes a 1.75 percent salary increase for the first year and a 2 percent increase for the second year of the contract. That would give teachers an average annual raise of $1,241 in the first year and $1,419 in the second year, the board said. That offer was contingent on the fact-finder recommending the district’s operational and health insurance proposals, according to the report.
The union has proposed a 4.31 percent increase in money for compensation, allocated based on salary grid steps. Raises and grid positions for teachers are determined based on seniority and level of education.
The fact-finder recommends a 2.75 percent increase for the first year and a 3.5 percent increase for the second year. Ryan also recommended the increases be toward the higher end of the salary grid.
The report says the district’s proposal is too low, given the total financial picture and past contracts. The two sides have agreed to salary increases ranging from 2.6 to 4.4 percent over the past 10 school years.
The district’s position in the report is that its proposal uses all available funds in the approved fiscal 2018 budget.
The union says the district can afford what teachers are seeking, based on a 7.74 percent revenue increase over the past three fiscal years. The union also points to high living costs in Burlington and the range of salary increases for other area districts.
The report suggests that the board’s proposal would not allow the district to remain in the “middle of the middle” for Chittenden County districts. Salary increases for county teachers in fiscal 2017 ranged from 2.9 to 4.56 percent, according to the fact-finder.
The report also indicates debate regarding “unassigned time.” The district has proposed eliminating 50 percent of this time, specifically at the high school, from the workday.
Ryan wrote that the proposal, if enacted, would cause “considerable disruption.”
“While the district argues that it should not have to make any concession for the loss of unassigned time at the high school, I do not see it that way,” the report states. “The teachers have had this time for years. They have planned their workday in reliance upon it, and the evidence shows that they have used it to enhance their students’ education.”
As for health insurance, Ryan endorsed the district’s proposal to offer one plan, the Consumer Driven Health Plan Gold. He also recommended no change to the current premium split — in which the district pays 83 percent — due to changing costs. He recommended the employee pay the first $400 in out-of-pocket expenses, with the district picking up 60 percent of the rest up to the cap on such costs.
A similar fact-finding process proved unsuccessful in leading to a deal last fall, when the two parties barely avoided a strike through a last-ditch negotiation session. The current contract for Burlington teachers ends Aug. 31.
The fact-finder’s report can be viewed here.
(Three sentences in this story were slightly reworded or shortened after publication. The changes more accurately reflect Erik Wells’ comments, as well as the fact-finder’s discussion of teacher health care and Burlington salaries relative to other districts.)