Teacher strike is on in Burlington after last-ditch talks fail

Fran Brock
Burlington Education Association President Fran Brock addresses reporters last fall. The union plans to strike Thursday, roughly a year after another walkout was averted. File photo by Morgan True/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — City teachers will go on strike Thursday, after mediated contract talks failed to yield a compromise between the union and school board.

As of late Wednesday, the school district had not released any information as to whether schools would be closed Thursday, but school board Chair Mark Porter said a robocall would go out to parents of the district’s roughly 4,000 students in the morning with more information.

Union officials said they believed schools would be closed but that the question was one for the district to answer. A district spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

A priority for the district will be providing meals to students who rely on the schools’ food program, Porter said, though he was unsure how that would be handled.

Teachers said they planned to picket at the district’s central office and that strike activities would be coordinated from the Vermont Workers’ Center on North Winooski Avenue.

Neither the union nor the school board was able to say when the two sides might resume negotiations or how long they expect the strike will last.

After close to nine hours of talks Wednesday, bargaining teams for the Burlington Education Association and the school board emerged from the law offices of the board’s attorney with contradictory versions of what had stymied a deal.

BEA President Fran Brock said the union and the board couldn’t reach agreement over how to balance teacher prep time against teachers’ responsibility for supervising in the cafeteria, during recess or for so-called door duty greeting students as they arrive in the morning.

“When the board would not move on, particularly, the elementary school language, that was that,” Brock said.

Porter said that was not the stumbling block and that the teachers had essentially pulled a bait-and-switch, telling the board they wanted to negotiate about working conditions but then raising salary issues partway through the day.

“This all just came down to the money,” Porter said.

He said the board offered teachers an 8 percent raise over three years, an increase of roughly $6,000 per teacher over that span, which the union rejected.

“We really don’t know what else we possibly could have done to avoid this strike,” Porter said.

Brock acknowledged that “there have been issues with the health care, the salary.” However, she maintained that the primary issue stalling talks Wednesday was working conditions, especially in the elementary schools.

She said the union offered solutions to help address the achievement gap between low-income and wealthier students — something the district has said is a priority and the reason for changes to how teachers are expected to manage their time. But Brock said those solutions required getting teachers “out of the cafeteria, off of the door duty, off the recess duty.”

Porter initially said the issues for elementary teachers were “not resolved, but we were more than willing to talk about that.” He said the board had not received a firm offer from the union on that score, before cutting himself off to say, “No, no, no, the door duties were actually resolved. The door duties were always resolved.”

The real issue, he said, was money.

Bob Church, the lead negotiator for the union and an instructor at the Burlington Tech Center, said teachers are increasingly frustrated with an “inability to work with kids” as other demands on their time increase.

“So when we’re looking at the flexibility at the elementary level, it’s about the teacher having the time to prep, to do the work that’s needed for the individual child,” he said.

Mounting frustration over how teachers are being told to manage their time and perform their duties has driven turnover in the district, he said. Since May 2014, roughly the time when the district’s previous superintendent left, more than 100 BEA members have left, according to Church. Sixty-four of those were resignations, he said.

“We’re afraid if we don’t pull this plug right now, we’re going to continue to see an exodus of staff, and we’re afraid, and we’re afraid for the city,” Church said.

Church was not able to say how that number of departures and resignations compares with the number during the four years prior to May 2014.

Mayor Miro Weinberger and a third-party mediator spent the day trying to help the two sides find a resolution, ferrying messages between the board and union negotiating teams, which spent most of the day in separate rooms.

Ira Lobel, the mediator, has spent decades helping school boards and unions in the Northeast settle contracts. In October he served as mediator on the eve of a narrowly averted Burlington teachers strike. At the time, Lobel said he also mediated during the last Burlington School District teacher strike in the late 1970s.

When the one-year deal Lobel helped craft ended earlier this month, the school board voted to impose salary and other working conditions on its teachers. In response, the union voted to go on strike.

The Burlington Education Association announced Tuesday that it would delay its strike by one day to participate in the mediation at the request of Lobel and the mayor.

The two sides had previously said they largely resolved their differences around pay and health benefits, but that they remained at odds over the changes the district sought in how teachers manage their time.

The negotiations took place at the law offices of school board attorney Joe McNeil. The bargaining teams and mediators began arriving just after 10 a.m., saying they were ready to work toward a compromise but offering little else to reporters gathered outside.

Emma Chaffee, managing editor of the Burlington High School Register, said teachers had told students that if a deal wasn’t reached by 3:30 p.m., the union would walk away from the talks. However, both bargaining teams remained holed up inside the law offices.

Around that time, rumors circulated among students and online that teachers had decided to go forward with the strike, and that sports practices would canceled. However, union and district representatives said that was not the case.

At 5:30 p.m. Lobel and the mayor came out to briefly address reporters “before the 6 o’clock news” without an update beyond that negotiations were still in progress. “As long as we’re talking there’s still a little bit of hope,” Lobel said.

When the mediations ended, that hope had run dry. As Lobel and Weinberger emerged at the end of the day, the mayor said he was disappointed the two sides hadn’t reached a compromise, but had little to say about the path forward.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the occupation of some workers who have departed since May 2014.

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