Education

South Burlington schools in limbo as board imposes contract

SOUTH BURLINGTON — The local teachers union said Wednesday it was weighing its next move after the school board voted to impose salary and other contract terms as negotiations remain stalled.

The South Burlington Educators’ Association, the local union, will have the option to accept the board’s terms or go on strike. School for most students in the district began Wednesday.

Rich Wise, SBEA co-president, said the union is still discussing its options, and he did not rule out a strike. He said the imposition of terms Tuesday evening came as a surprise and that the union would prefer to go back to the negotiating table.

Ten months of negotiations failed to yield a compromise.

The one-year contract terms the board imposed include an average salary increase of $1,679 and will ensure teachers pay the same amount toward health care as they did last year, according to a statement from the school board. Those terms are retroactive to July 1, when the previous contract ended.

“They’re not wrong when they give those figures, but what they’re not saying is the impact these terms will have on teachers over the course of their career,” Wise said.

If the imposed terms become the basis for future contracts, Wise said, teachers in South Burlington stand to lose “thousands and thousands of dollars” over the course of their careers. That’s because the terms imposed on teachers do away with step increases that tie raises to seniority and continuing education credits. Such step increases are common in Vermont teacher contracts but are increasingly becoming a point of contention between unions and school boards.

Kathryn Buley, the other SBEA co-president, told the board during Tuesday’s meeting that the terms it was imposing “radically change the salary structure of a 50-year agreement between SBEA and the South Burlington community,” according to a Burlington Free Press report.

When it comes to health care, Wise said it’s true teachers won’t pay more in the current year than they did last year, but the imposed terms set the dollar amount teachers will pay toward health care, instead of basing it on a percentage of the cost. If that were to continue, teachers could be on the hook for a larger amount if the cost of health care continues to rise, Wise said.

“When the board speaks they speak accurately, but it’s what they don’t say that we’re left dealing with,” he said.

However, school board member Martin LaLonde, who is also a Democratic state representative, said both the new structure for salary increases and the move to a set dollar contribution to health care are sensible decisions.

The current step system for salary increases has led to massive disparities in what teachers are paid. A starting teacher with a master’s degree earned $53,838 in the district last year, while the most senior teachers with master’s degrees and the highest number of continuing education credits made $89,788, according to a chart published by the board.

“We’re asking them to do the same job and expecting them to be successful, and yet there’s this huge gap” between what senior teachers and newcomers make, LaLonde said.

LaLonde said South Burlington’s best-paid teachers earn among the most of public school teachers anywhere in the state, and that’s likely to continue even without the step system.

To continue attracting talented young teachers to South Burlington, the board felt it needed to increase their pay and reduce the gap with senior teachers, LaLonde said.

When it comes to health care, LaLonde said the board feels strongly that savings from new health care plans that teachers across the state will transition to in January should be returned to taxpayers. Members felt the best way to do that was by having teachers pay a set amount toward their health plan, rather than continuing to have them pay a percentage, he said.

That was the board’s position before the governor and the Legislature passed Act 85, which cuts state payments to districts by the estimated amount of savings each district will accrue from the new health plans.

“We are continuing to offer our employees very good health insurance, better than most people can obtain in Vermont, and they’re not paying anything more for it than they do currently,” LaLonde said.

Both the step increases for salary and a set dollar contribution for health care versus a percentage are likely to dog negotiations over a new contract for 2019.

The board has indicated it would like those negotiations to start soon, but union officials hope the board will reconsider the terms it just imposed.

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