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CSSU, teachers avoid contract impasse

Negotiations to continue

Feb. 3, 2011

By Tim Simard
Observer staff

Teachers in Chittenden South Supervisory Union breathed a sigh of relief Tuesday night when local school board members chose not to impose a contract. The decision even garnered a round of applause from educators who waited at Champlain Valley Union High School to learn the outcome of the meeting.

Teachers union representatives said it was a sign that the two sides may reach common ground sooner rather than later.

“For me, it shows that they’re continuing to be interested in the process,” said Lisa Bisbee, lead negotiator for the Chittenden South Education Association, or CSEA. Bisbee is also a special educator at Williston Central School.

Darlene Worth, chairwoman of the CSSU School Board, also speculated that an agreeable outcome could be found in the near future. She believes both sides will soon return to the negotiating table.

“We’re getting there,” Worth said.

Approximately 200 teachers from Charlotte, Hinesburg, Shelburne and Williston schools, along with teachers from CVU, crowded into a classroom at the high school on Tuesday night. All held up signs detailing their years of service in CSSU. CVU math teacher and union spokesperson Christopher Hood said teachers came out in force to show they’re serious about a settlement.

Contract negotiations between CSSU School Board members and the teachers union have grown tense in recent weeks. Despite a mediator’s recommendations issued in September 2010, the two sides have yet to reach consensus in a process that began 16 months ago. Teachers have worked without a contract since July 2010.

On Jan. 20, the CSEA walked away from negotiations over differences regarding salary step increases and payments toward health care premiums. The CSSU Board then issued an ultimatum: the teachers union must come up with a viable counter offer by Jan. 31 or face an imposed contract.

After the Jan. 20 meeting, CSEA representatives called the prospect of an imposed contract unfortunate and said teachers have actively discussed a possible strike. Still, the union brought a counter offer before the board by Monday’s deadline.

The decision by CSSU board members to return to negotiations surprised some of the teachers, who expected an imposition vote. Instead, the board responded with its own counter offer to the CSEA’s counter offer, which Hood said was a welcome development.

“This was kind of a shock,” Hood said. “We didn’t plan on negotiating tonight, so we’ll have to go back and see what the board has countered with.”

Before the board went into executive session and closed the meeting to the public, it heard from various teachers urging board members to avoid an imposition and return to the table.

CVU teacher Chris O’Donnell said she was saddened when the two sides had apparently reached an impasse. The prospect of a contract imposition distressed many teachers, she said.

“Someone in Williston told me this is like getting divorce papers without even knowing your marriage is in a bad way,” O’Donnell said.

Williston educator Pat Troxell said the negotiations leave teachers feeling unappreciated.

CVU School Board member and Williston resident David Rath told teachers that current economic conditions, not their work ethic, helped create the impasse.

“I understand that it’s difficult to not take any of this personally,” Rath said.

No date has been set for a return to negotiations.