Education

Burlington teachers’ contract ratified

Burlington School Superintendent Yaw Obeng addresses reporters alongside members of the school board. Photo by Morgan True / VTDigger

BURLINGTON — The school board and the teachers union both voted to ratify new contract terms Wednesday, the first day students returned to school after a four-day strike.

Emerging from Burlington High School after the union’s vote, Burlington Education Association President Fran Brock said that teachers had “overwhelmingly” voted in favor of ratification. The school board vote was unanimous.

Asked by reporters who had blinked, both school board Chair Mark Porter and Brock tried to communicate that they didn’t view the deal as a zero-sum game. They said both sides are committed to a more collaborative process in the future.

“Neither side got everything it wanted, but we’re walking away with enough to make us feel like we’ve had success,” Brock said.

Stephanie Seguino, school board vice chair, said the settlement requires both sides to explore “trust building procedures.” Seguino said she’s begun that process with her counterpart Bob Church, who leads the BEA negotiating team.

“There are some relationships that need to be rebuilt as a result of this, but the board is committed to engaging in processes that will build a collaborative relationship with the BEA,” Seguino said.

The conciliatory language was a remarkable contrast from just days earlier when both sides were offering different accounts of closed bargaining sessions and accusing each other of spreading misinformation or misrepresenting the other’s position.

The two-year deal, retroactive to the beginning of the month, includes a 2.5 percent salary increase in year one, and 2.75 percent in year two. Teachers will pay 19 percent of health care premiums in year one, and 20 percent in year two — the target set by the governor, who is looking to save the state money through new lower-cost teacher health plans that take effect across the state this year.

Porter said the board had not analyzed how paying for the contract might impact local property taxes over the period. The topic didn’t come up with the board’s negotiating team as it worked toward a resolution, he said.

The new contract also includes operational changes at the elementary and high school levels, which had become a sticking point, according to the union.

Elementary teachers will only be asked to supervise students before school, during lunch and at recess three times per week. Reducing those duties was important to the union, because teachers say they need more time to develop individualized learning plans for high need students.

Superintendent Yaw Obeng said the compromise was acceptable for the district, because it will ensure enough staff supervision during unstructured times when bullying and harassment among students is most likely to occur.

Brock said giving elementary teachers additional time to plan and work one-on-one with students will save the district money by reducing the need for remedial and support services at the middle and high school level.

“We have students coming in who have a multitude of needs and issues that need to be addressed before we can really get them to read and write and think, which are the basic teaching responsibilities,” she said.

At the high school level, teachers will be given additional time to work on closing the achievement gap that exists between low-income students and their wealthier peers as well as focusing on reducing the dropout rate. A study committee of teachers and administrators will look at how best to use that time.

Brock said that hopefully this strike, the first in 40 years in the city, would give the school board second thoughts about imposing contract terms on the union.

“The fact that we were back getting imposed upon for the second time, two years in a row, it just created the crisis,” she said.

Responding to a reporter’s question about two lawmakers’ renewed push for legislation banning contract impositions and teacher strikes, Superintendent Obeng said it was an “interesting proposal.”

Obeng said that in jurisdictions where impositions and strikes aren’t an option there are typically other avenues to reach resolution. If lawmakers look at alternatives, the superintendent said he would like to contribute.

“Now that we’re having the conversation, I think we should explore other opportunities,” Obeng said.

The Vermont NEA, the statewide teachers union, opposes doing away with strikes and impositions. It has said roughly 60 percent of school districts have yet to settle contracts for the current year.

Asked by reporters what her advice would be to other districts still negotiating, Brock said that if they hope to avoid a strike “they need to get serious about how they’re going to treat the teachers in their contracts.”

Burlington Education Association President Fran Brock, flanked by union teachers, addresses reporters after voting to ratify new contract terms. Photo by Morgan True / VTDigger
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