Down to the wire

Lengthy last-minute negotiation session between teachers, school boards averts strike; WNESU teachers unanimously OK new contract

BELLOWS FALLS — It took almost 300 days and several well-publicized rancorous exchanges, but the teachers and school boards of the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union (WNESU) averted a strike on April 3 by reaching a tentative agreement on the terms of a new multi-year contract.

While the terms of the new contract will remain confidential until it is ratified by all parties, Darren Allen, a spokesman for the Vermont-National Education Association, told The Commons on Monday that “The teachers have already unanimously ratified the tentative agreement.”

Windham Northeast Superintendent Christopher Kibbe expressed some surprise at the speed with which the teachers ratified the contract.

“It's a little unusual that the teachers ratified it without having a final copy of the contract,” he said.

“It's not just the few items we negotiated successful the other night,” Kibbe said. “There were 10 or 12 items with minor wording changes that need to be added to the final draft of the document. I anticipate it could take a month or so before we get it around to all the boards.”

In the days and weeks leading up to the agreement, representatives from both sides went public with disagreements over the main points of contention and each side pointed to the other as the party responsible for bringing the talks to the verge of a teachers' strike.

“The major reason we don't have a contract is that the boards want to strip due process rights from us,” wrote Erica Moody, a spokeswoman for the Windham Northeast Education Association, in a column published in the Brattleboro Reformer in mid-March and subsequently sent to members of the school boards.

“They want to take away our right to appeal termination and disciplinary decisions to a neutral third party.”

“By stripping away arbitration rights, the boards would make a mockery of a fair workplace,” Moody, a Bellows Falls Union High School teacher, continued. ”They would replace an orderly process that ensures that disciplinary action is carried out fairly in an unbiased way.”

Under a headline, “Teachers' union is misleading the public,”a press release from the WNESU Boards' Negotiating Committee addressed Moody's assertions.

“The boards' initial offer was consistent with the union position presented in the Moody column. We offered to abandon our court-substitution proposal and leave the arbitration provision unchanged in return for the union's commitment to hold the line on salaries and benefits during this two-year contract cycle; that is, a wage freeze in each of those years.”

Then, on the Friday preceding the final round of negotiations, a “robo-call” recorded by Kibbe went out to residents in the district, warning that a teachers' strike seemed likely and that parents should begin preparing alternate child care arrangements.

Moody shot back, stating that the robo-calls “revealed what the teachers had suspected all along; the boards' leadership would rather disrupt the school year than bargain fairly.”

“We went into bargaining willing to accept a one-year pay freeze,” Moody continued.

Allen told The Commons, “Removing the arbitration process would have made that contract an outlier, certainly the only one [without that provision that] we know about in public education. In most labor contracts, it's what protects employees, and the employer, when there are disciplinary issues and those sorts of things.”

“The teachers were very clear that they were willing to make concessions to the economic situation that is going on around them,” he continued. “But that issue of arbitration was so important that the teachers were not willing to give it up.”

“It was a matter of principle,” Allen said.

The contract talks dragged on well into last Tuesday night, but eventually the tentative agreement was reached and the teachers' strike was averted.

Allen said such down-to-the-wire contract talks are rare.

“It was very clear when both sides walked into the bargaining session last Tuesday that they were ready to avert the strike,” he said.

“The boards were very clearly willing to negotiate, and obviously, the talks were very productive,” he continued. “The negotiators reached a multi-year deal that satisfied both sides.”

In a statement following the negotiations, Moody said, “We're pleased to have overcome our differences to reach this settlement, and we believe it is one that is fair - to us, to the communities, and to our schools. Now, we can get on with the business of making our schools the best they can be.”

And a statement posted by Kibbe on WNESU's website simply said, “There is school on Wednesday! Boards and teachers reach tentative agreement!”

Kibbe told The Commons, “Nobody wanted a strike to occur. My reports from around the district on Wednesday were that the teachers were thrilled to be back at work and that everybody was smiling. We need to get on with our work with the kids.”

“Obviously, the teachers don't want to leave the classroom,” Allen said. “We hope going forward that both sides can remember the sense of shared compromise that both brought to the table.”

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