School districts face contract questions (2/25/10)

Feb. 25, 2010

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

The teacher contract impasse between Chittenden South Supervisory Union officials and the local educators association is another in a long line of similar quandaries occurring across Vermont. School districts across the state are looking at tough solutions to deal with rising budget costs during contract years.

At issue in CSSU is whether teachers should accept a salary freeze for the next school year and pay more into their health insurance premiums. The CSSU Board Negotiation Team asked teachers in recent meetings to forego a pay increase in a one-year contract beginning next school year. In the current three-year contract, due to expire in June, teachers received yearly raises of 3.5 percent to 4 percent or more.

The board also asked educators to cover 20 percent of their health insurance co-pays instead of the current 12 percent. When CSSU negotiators could not reach an agreement with the Chittenden South Education Association — the teachers’ union — they declared an impasse last week and moved negotiations on to the mediator phase. A neutral third party will now work with both sides to iron out a deal.

But CSSU isn’t the only district dealing with such circumstances. School districts from the Connecticut River to Lake Champlain are wrestling with the same challenges.

“To be fiscally prudent about school spending, you have to look at employee costs,” said John Nelson, executive director for the Vermont School Boards Association.

Across the state, education costs continue rising amid the country’s worst economic slump in decades. And while taxpayers are feeling the pinch, so are teachers, said Darren Allen, communications director with the Vermont branch of the National Education Association.

“All educators are working people who feel the same costs and pressures everybody else does,” Allen said. “Our members are dealing with all the same issues.”

Besides CSSU, other school districts are looking to cut or freeze teacher salaries for one year. The South Burlington School District is set to enter negotiations with teachers this month. School Board members decided to inform the community about their intentions before talks even began, according to South Burlington School Board Chairman Rich Cassidy.

“We had to announce our intentions early,” Cassidy said. “Our entire (school) budget is based on getting an agreement with all our unions.”

Cassidy said the board looked at budgeting for a 2.5 percent pay increase for teachers, staff and administrators, which all have separate union representation. When the numbers appeared too high for voters to approve, they budgeted for a zero percent increase.

Like CSSU and many other schools, South Burlington School Board negotiators support a one-year contract with the hope that the economy will improve next year. School Board members in Burlington, on the other hand, don’t foresee much improvement in the economy. As a result, they’ve asked teachers to take a 5 percent pay cut.

School spending remains a problem in Burlington, which has seen budgets increase by more than 9 percent in recent years. Board Chairman Fred Lane said teacher salaries account for more than 80 percent of the district’s budget and taxpayers can’t afford more skyrocketing costs.

In past budget seasons, “we didn’t appreciate how bad the downturn would be,” Lane said. “Now that we do, we need to deal with that.”

The Stowe School District dealt with the uncertain economy by asking teachers to forego a 5.25 percent pay raise next school year. While it’s not a contract year for Stowe, School Board Chairwoman Cameron Page said if teachers didn’t agree to a pay freeze, board members faced cutting significant numbers of staff.

“We had to appeal to the idea of the greater good,” Page said. “We’re talking about people’s livelihoods here.”

With salary freezes and insurance hikes continually discussed, teachers are facing financial strain themselves, Allen said. Furthermore, teachers now need to pay between $500 and $600 more per year for pension benefits, which is estimated to save Vermont taxpayers $15 million each year. Increasing insurance costs would be yet another burden, he said.

“This is a significant contribution and our members realize these are not normal times,” Allen said.

Allen and Nelson agreed that there are rarely easy solutions during contract negotiations. And negotiating teams for boards and educators will need to make tough decisions as the economy shows little hint of improvement, they said.

“I think the conditions that we’re living in will apply pressure on both sides to agree,” Nelson said. “These settlements have to reflect the community.”