Many Vt. Education Contracts Unsettled

Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, September 10, 2017

Norwich — With a few exceptions, teacher and education staff contracts on the Vermont side of the Upper Valley remain in the air after months of talks and with possible added pressure from the latest state budget still to come.

In Norwich, School Board and Marion Cross staff have been in mediation for months after School Board members and union negotiators reached an impasse over such items as pay raises and health benefits.

Now the two sides have entered fact-finding, a process in which professional mediators prepare a report with recommendations to resolve a dispute. Fact-finding is a step closer to the point at which school boards can impose conditions and unions can strike.

Norwich School Board members said the mediator’s report on teachers was delivered during the week of Aug. 28, although the two sides haven’t yet met to discuss it. The report on support staff is due this week.

Meanwhile, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott this summer signed a budget deal that reduces the amount of education funding sent to districts in exchange for anticipated cuts to workers’ health plans.

Norwich officials last month said they expected to receive $37,000 less from the state for the 2017-18 school year, with $20,000 less in the year to follow.

“It obviously will weigh on negotiations,” Norwich School Board Chairman Tom Candon said, “but when we last met with the teachers in mediation, it was prior to the special session” — the legislative session that yielded the budget deal — “and the benchmark hadn’t yet been set.”

Reached by email, negotiators for Norwich teachers and staff declined to comment on the talks.

Scott initially fought to implement a single statewide teacher health care plan but eventually settled with legislators on a budget under which educators would pay 20 percent of their premiums, with the remaining 80 percent coming from districts. Today, the statewide average for teachers’ share of premiums is about 13 percent. In Norwich, teachers under the most recent three-year contract were paying about 16 percent.

School districts and bargaining groups across the state are engaged in negotiations for the next round of contracts and will have to reach agreements that either include the cuts to health plans or find room elsewhere in school budgets.

Both district officials and union employees criticized the budget mandate when it arrived, saying it could make their talks more difficult.

Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, said about 80 contracts statewide remained unsettled, and she attributed some of the negotiation challenges to the added health care requirements.

“Health care has been a major sticking point this round of negotiations, since all employees are transitioning to new plans,” she said in an email on Friday. “The state funding cuts required by Act 85 have likely made negotiations more challenging because school boards now have fewer resources available to make concessions at the bargaining table.”

On Thursday, Burlington Education Association members announced their intention to strike beginning Wednesday unless the city’s School Board agreed to return to the table. The Burlington School Board last week voted to impose terms of employment, effectively walking away from stymied negotiations.

Some, but not all, of the Upper Valley’s supervisory unions have settled on contracts.

Rivendell Interstate School District and Orange East Supervisory Union finalized contracts in June, but both Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union and White River Valley Supervisory Union are still working to reach an agreement.

“Norwich is a little further along in the process,” said Geo Honigford, the president of VSBA and a Royalton School Board member, “but the rest of us are headed in the same direction.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or at 603-727-3242.