Burlington School Board contesting fact-finder’s report

Burlington school district
Stephanie Seguino is the negotiating chair of the Burlington School Board. At left is Superintendent Yaw Obeng. File photo by Cory Dawson/VTDigger

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.

Fran Brock
Burlington Education Association President Fran Brock addresses reporters last fall. File photo by Morgan True/VTDigger

“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.

school bus
A Burlington school bus at the district headquarters. File photo by Jess Wisloski/VTDigger

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.)

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Alexandre Silberman

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  • Edward Letourneau

    Seems like its a perfect opportunity to reduce staff. Figure out how many cuts are needed to balance the budget, and cut 50% more. A few years of this practice, will teach unions to become reasonable.

  • Steve Baker

    Burlington and South Burlington are in the same fight? It’s great the way the “fact-finder’s” report always points to other towns that pay more. But who’s to say those other towns are doing a reasonable job or not. Look at a contract from 1980 and compare it to the new contracts. Granted salaries will be higher then 1980, but look at the percentage of the total budget that salary and benefits make up. That will make you Wake Up.

  • Judith McLaughlin

    Three young people close to my family graduate from 3 different high schools, and go off to college. All failed in their fist semester. One woke up, and is completing a Master’s Degree. The other two were totally unprepared for college academically – financially was not an issue. In this micro example – 1/3 of our students were academically unprepared for college.

    Our high school education system is ripping us off.

    • Edward Letourneau

      What we have are schools within schools. The really good students do well, while the poorer students are just passed to keep them moving through with their class. Everybody is aimed at going to college, and ignore the fact that just we have always known only about half of any cohort is actually college material. I think we did better when grouped students for college prep, business and vocational — although vocational is now technical education and classes are mostly filled with the smarter, more dedicated kids.

  • Tim Vincent

    “Fact-finders, mediators, arbitrators…”
    The unions take an extreme position assuming that the Fact Finder, etc. will split the difference, because…..
    These “neutral” third parties make their money from….wait for it…labor disputes.
    No labor disputes, no need for “Fact finders, etc.”
    So, how neutral do you think they are?

  • Paul Richards

    “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.” This is preposterous. This fact has nothing to do with anything related to what these people should be paid. This is nothing but the “fact finder” falling for the traps set by the union and their crooked methods of always getting what they want. It may be a fact that the school’s overall win/loss record in basketball has improved over the last 10 years but it also has nothing to do with what these people should be paid. What does the “financial picture” have to do with this? Is this a game of take all that we can? What does “past contracts” have to do with this? If we are going to base pay on past pay, pay of other districts and how much money can be eked out of the taxpayers this is a losing game; which it is… What about merit? What about performance and results? This system is the stupidest thing we have going. All they can talk about is everything but what matters, or should matter to the people that have hired them to teach our kids; results and accountability. What about the discriminatory pension plans they have? There is no mention of that. If social security is good enough for me it’s good enough for them. Let them strike and replace every one of them! They have no idea how good they have it. Time to stop the tail from wagging the dog.

  • Edward Letourneau

    Its even better. they get a pension of 50% of salary based on the highest 3 years, and most of these contracts only require “student contact” 9actually teaching) for 3.5 hours a day, while they are paid for 7. — there is no other job where the boss can’t tell you what to do for half the day.

    • Paul Richards

      And you can’t fire them for poor performance. If anyone dare try to reprimand them they get “paid time off” (aka; a paid vacation) and still keep the pension plan. They may even get a golden parachute to force them out the door. This is the most backwards system there is and we all are forced to pay for it and rely on them to properly teach our children? Fat chance that sill happen while so much energy is put into maintaining this ridiculous monopoly. Wake up people! Public sector unions need to be outlawed once again.

  • Matt Young

    Offer school choice, lower costs, better results. Families will choose schools not being pushed around by the union bullies

  • Christopher Daniels

    So much outright false commentary here in this echo chamber of dislike for teachers and public schools. It’s as if the talk radio said to keep up the battering of the greedy old teachers and their dastardly unions feeding at the public trough. Talk up the failure of two of three kids to make it through a semester of college and blame it on the entire school system instead of the parents raising children who quit at the first hint of adversity. Spotlight the glory of school choice as the ultimate win. It’s all wash and rinse of the same old threadbare arguments when it comes to public education, and then pat each other on the back with the reassurance that nobody else can see what we true Vermonters can.

    • Matt Young

      Chris, please inform us exactly what is the “false commentary” you speak of? It always amazes me when the big union advocates circle the wagons around the campfire (at the expense of Vermont children). It seems that many cronies of the big education monopoly are afraid of a little competition (the thing that reduces cost and improves outcomes). Btw, I’m as “true” of a Vermonter as anyone else.

  • Matt Young

    So what should folks do, join a big union and bully struggling Vermont taxpayers to get what they want?

  • Joe Shannon

    It is truly sad how corrupt the educational system has become in Vermont. The Union is nothing more than a greedy organization trying to get every penny it can from the taxpayers. While 85% of the students in my district qualifies for free lunches because they are so destitute the teachers are thriving like a fungus. Teacher’s “base” salary may appear low until you start adding the perks. Their Gold health insurance costs taxpayers over $24,000 a year for EVERY teacher. Throw in vacation days, paid holidays, sick days and a retirement fund that is obscene and you have to wonder what they are complaining about. While most parents can not afford 99 cent notebooks for their children the Union is fighting for more. The sad fact is the more we spend the less we seem to get. Teachers have become nothing but bitter bias people who produce students that have to run to “safe spaces” if you disagree with them. Prepared for college? These kids aren’t prepared for flipping burgers.