Scott Welcomes Concession by Teachers Union

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Montpelier — The administration of Gov. Phil Scott is calling the decision by the teacher’s union to embrace a statewide health benefit “great news,” but wants immediate action on its cost-containment proposal before hashing out long-term changes.

The Vermont-NEA made a major concession this week in its dispute with the administration over healthcare benefits when the union put forward a plan that would shift decision-making to the state level, as opposed to having individual school boards negotiate with their teachers.

Vermont teachers’ health care coverage was the sticking point that extended last year’s legislative session, until the governor agreed to create a commission to explore the issue.

As part of the new proposal, the union requested equal representation on a commission that would create and implement a new healthcare plan. The proposal would eliminate the Vermont Education Healthcare Initiative, which currently oversees the health care benefit and includes only one union representative on its five-member board.

Administration Secretary Susanne Young wrote a letter to the VT-NEA on Friday chastising the union for resisting a proposal for statewide negotiations last year, saying it said cost the state millions in lost savings.

“It’s disappointing for the union to come to the table a year later, in the wake of mounting fiscal pressure on school employees’ health benefits, after eroding the opportunity to chart a course that would balance strong benefits for employees with the public cost to taxpayers,” she wrote.

The letter said it’s telling that the union has changed its position following a 16.8 percent rate increase on school employees insurance, which it said was a direct result of local negotiations resulting in spending on top of what was laid out in last year’s appropriations bill.

“Nonetheless, the governor is open to working with the Vermont NEA on a path forward,” it said.

The first step would be for the union to “demonstrate their willingness to work together” by agreeing to the administration’s short-term cost-sharing proposal starting next summer and extending “until this commission can arrive at a consensus path forward.”

“To level the playing field for the plans struck last year, we must reset to a uniform standard and take that time to establish the statewide mechanism after which school districts can negotiate with employees,” Young wrote.

In an interview, Young said it was too soon to say where the administration stood on the proposed commission, which would be made up of half executive branch appointees and half union representatives.

“It’s a great development that they are willing to move to a benefit that is negotiated on a statewide basis. That’s great news, the devil again is in the details and we haven’t seen the proposal, and if it’s dramatically different,” Young said.

“If we are talking about the benefit, that would be negotiated — hard to know at this point, we are really at the beginning of a process here with the legislature and with them,” she said.

Darren Allen, Vermont-NEA communications director, said the union was not proposing statewide collective bargaining, adding that Young “doesn’t characterize the union’s position at all in her memo.”

“The part that is important to members is the very end where she says she looks forward to working with us,” Allen said. He declined to say where the union stood on Young’s proposal to agree to short-term cost-containment while major changes were being discussed.

“What we are looking for is our members having equal say at the planning development and administration stage, like they used to,” he said.

Union representation on VEHI, which oversees the health benefit, has been steadily reduced in recent years.

VEHI began as a partnership of the School Board’s Insurance Trust and the Vermont NEA, with two administrators, one from each organization, and eight members, four management and four employees.

New federal rules in 2015 forced it to restructure into a school board membership organization, which is when it became five-person board leaving the VT-NEA with just two seats.

When VEHI decided after negotiations in 2016 to make the most generous of four new health care plans the default, some school board members felt the unions had too much influence on the board.

When the VT-NEA seat came up for re-election later that year, 118 school boards petitioned to change the bylaws to give school boards an advocate on the board for balance. VEHI voted for the seat to go to the executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association.

The union’s new proposal essentially proposes a return to the original structure of the VEHI board, while also giving in to the administration’s demand to state-level negotiating — not collective bargaining.

“With this proposal, local school districts and unions will no longer bargain over health insurance; however, all other parts of collective bargaining will remain unaffected by this commission,” the proposal said.

“This proposal will ensure that health insurance benefits and cost sharing are developed with the equal input of labor and management, in a way that a statewide bargaining scheme will not,” it said.