Contract talks reach stalemate between CSSU, teachers (2/18/10)

CSSU team seeks teacher pay freeze

Feb. 18, 2010

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

Contract talks between Chittenden South educators and board members broke down this week after both parties could not reach a settlement. On Tuesday, the Chittenden South Supervisory Union Board Negotiation Team announced it reached a negotiation impasse with the local teachers union.

While both sides agreed to a one-year contract, disputes regarding salary and benefits caused the impasse, according to CSSU board negotiator and Charlotte School Board Chairwoman Patrice Machavern. School Board members from Charlotte, Hinesburg, Shelburne, Williston and Champlain Valley Union High School make up the CSSU Board Negotiation Team.

“Obviously, we’re not in the same ballpark,” Machavern said, referring to the salary and benefits issue.

Lisa Bisbee, lead negotiator with the Chittenden South Education Association, said she was “not surprised” by the CSSU board’s decision. “I’m just a little disappointed, that’s all,” she said.

The Chittenden South Education Association represents teachers across the CSSU district. Bisbee is a special educator at Williston Central School.

Both sides will now proceed to the next stage of negotiations – mediation. The negotiation teams are currently looking for a third party to help in the debates.

When negotiations began in January, the CSSU board asked teachers to forego salary increases in the next school year, as well as pay 20 percent of their health insurance premiums. In the current contract, due to expire at the end of June, teachers pay 12 percent of their health insurance premiums. Pay increases in the last contract hovered around 3.5 percent to 4 percent per year.

Williston School Board Chairwoman Darlene Worth, also on the CSSU negotiation board, said the board proposal reflects the current economic climate and voter concerns stated in numerous School Board meetings. A salary freeze for one year is a fair option, she said.

“We’re hoping our own finances look better in the next year or 18 months,” Worth said.

The CSSU Board Negotiation Team announced the impasse in a press release Tuesday morning. Bisbee said on Wednesday that  the teachers are looking for a salary increase comparable to what educators have received in other local districts. Teachers also want to keep intact their 12 percent contribution to health insurance premiums, she said.

Members of the CSSU Negotiation Team would not comment on the association’s proposals.

According to CSSU board lead negotiator Scott Cameron, the talks ended abruptly during Monday evening’s meeting.

“I think the teachers were disappointed we declared an impasse,” Cameron said.

Cameron is a Montpelier-based lawyer with the firm Zalinger, Cameron and Lambek, P.C. This is Cameron’s third negotiation working with CSSU, he said. Cameron said this contract year differs from past experiences because of the economic downturn. The fact the economy may be in transition is creating a stalemate with both teams, he said.

“The (CSSU) board is convinced times are bad right now,” Cameron said. “I’m not sure the teachers believe that.”

Bisbee said the association looks forward to meeting with the mediator. “We do understand these are crazy economic times we’re living in,” she said.

Teacher contract breakdowns are not uncommon. During CSSU’s last negotiation period during the 2006-2007 school year, both sides did not agree upon a new contract until three months after the old one expired. Since a one-year deal is on the table, the CSSU board hopes to reach a settlement before the June 30 expiration date, Cameron said.

Now that talks have reached a mediation phase, the teams will meet with a third party to iron out differences. If that proves unsuccessful, the negotiations will move to the fact-finding stage, where a third party researches information based on what both sides want. If talks continue too long, the CSSU board could impose a one-year contract. Teachers then have the option of striking, Cameron said.

“The (school) boards are really hoping to avoid that,” Cameron said.

Before mediation begins, meeting times remain scheduled in March between the CSSU board and teachers’ association. Worth said the CSSU board is willing to continue meeting before mediation if the teachers agree.

Cameron said the CSSU boards felt it necessary to release information during the contract phase to keep voters updated. He said the board understands residents’ concerns during the economic recession.

Worth agrees.

“This is good information to have out there before Town Meeting,” Worth said.