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WSESU teachers unanimously approve new two-year contract

BRATTLEBORO—Teachers in the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union have unanimously approved a new two-year contract.

The terms of the two-year contract, which takes effect on July 1, call for a salary freeze for all teachers in the first year. In the second year, teachers eligible for step increases will receive them and teachers eligible for longevity, taught for 10 or more years, will receive a pay increase of 0.75 percent.

The health insurance premium percentage of 15 percent paid by teachers remains.

“I was quite surprised [by the teachers’ vote],” said Jack McKiernan, the Windham Southeast Education Association’s chief negotiator and a special education teacher at Oak Grove School, after Monday’s vote.

He adds, however, there was a strong consensus among the membership that neighbors are experiencing pay cuts and teachers felt voting for the salary freeze was the right course of action.

According to McKiernan, approximately 150 members out of 300 voted.

On Tuesday, a joint meeting in Dummerston of five of the six WSESU member boards also unanimously approved the deal, except for Vernon, which was not present.

According to David V. Dunn, chairman of the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union school board, only four “yes” votes were needed to move forward, so the Vernon School Board’s absence had no effect on the final outcome. The school board also OK’d the deal by a 13-2 margin.

Wages and benefits comprise 80 percent of the WSESU’s operating budget, according to Dunn.

“Negotiations were cordial and professional. Negotiations are about expressing your position and understanding the other side,” said Dunn.

“We were bargaining in unprecedented times,” said McKiernan about the economic atmosphere surrounding the process.

Last August, the supervisory union ratified a one-year collective bargaining agreement with the WSEA that provided eligible teachers a slight boost in wages. That contract was set to expire at the end of this month.

Talks between the WSESU Negotiating Committee and the WSEA broke down earlier this year. By law, the two sides are required to generate a fact-finding report through an independent third party.

That report, released earlier this month, recommended step increases in salary for half of the estimated 350 teachers in the district and no changes in the insurance agreement.

However, the WSESU committee rejected the report and decided to move ahead and recommend imposing a salary freeze on all teachers.

The WSEA spoke to town school boards in the district to challenge the WSESU’s position.

In a letter sent to the school boards, McKiernan warned, “relations between boards and teachers have suffered enormously in every school district within the state of Vermont that has ever imposed a settlement. We do not want that to happen here.”

Teachers contended that the negotiating committee’s decision did not keep within the preceding settlements in Vermont’s bargaining law over the last 40 years. According to the WSEA, an imposed settlement has never occurred in Windham Southeast.

“While we understand the frustration caused by the difficult economic times we face, we feel strongly that imposing a contract upon the teachers of WSESU is a harmful and destructive way to resolve the contract negotiation impasse,” wrote McKiernan. “There have only been a handful of imposed settlements in Vermont throughout the 40 year history of our teacher bargaining law.”

In each of those cases, he added, “imposition has resulted in severe damage to the relationship between the school boards and teachers. Imposing a settlement on the teachers of WSESU will unquestionably and irrevocably damage the relationship we have all worked so hard to foster over the past 40 years of collective bargaining.”

While teachers have the right to strike in Vermont, there has never been a work stoppage in Windham Southeast.

The WSESU and teachers’ union finalized a tentative contract June 17. Dunn said a contract needed to be finalized by the end of June or the previous contract would have remained in effect and teachers would have received the raises scheduled in the previous contract.

The 18 teachers moving from step increases to longevity “would have received a 9.3 percent [pay] increase,”  Dunn said.

“It was purely economic issues that made us move to finality,” he added.

The union agreed to submit the contract to Arbiter Bruce Frazier, said McKiernan, but that the WSESU was unwilling to do the same.

He also said that the bargaining teams had until the start of the 2010-11 school year to finalize the contract, but that the board made a “good-faith presumption” in thinking that the contract needed to be finalized by the end of June when the previous contract expired.

Dunn said the WSESU pays competitive wages compared to nearby supervisory unions. Other New England schools, however, are looking at teacher benefits and wages relative to performance. He says some schools in Massachusetts have handed out 5- to 10-percent pay cuts as part of this movement.

“Performance is an extremely challenging thing to put into a contract,” he said.

The WSESU, he said, wants to shift its philosophy and instead of cutting teachers to stay competitive with wages, it wants to keep teachers and control costs through wages. He said this new philosophy was expressed during negotiations.

“Things aren’t easy, but you’ve got to do your best work when things aren’t easy,” said McKiernan.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #55 (Wednesday, June 23, 2010).

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