Burlington, VT The Burlington Education Association and Burlington Board of School Commissioners will meet with a mediator on Tuesday, April 11 in an effort to reach a fair and respectful contract. The Board declared impasse on March 17. The BEA’s proposal that will be shared with the third-party mediator reiterates two critical goals. The teachers seek a contract that ensures District resources are allocated to best meet the educational needs of all students; and promotes working conditions that attract and retain the best faculty for the city’s children.
The School Board’s proposal, which has not changed since the January exchange, fails to meet the educational needs of Burlington’s students, according to BEA leaders. The Board has invoked “goals of achieving ‘operational efficiency’ and ‘fiscal sustainability,’ which are no more than euphemisms for deeper cuts to a system that has been eroding essential services to students over the last three budget cycles,” said BEA President Fran Brock.
The BEA is concerned with elements from the Board that violate state regulations and are not in line with best teaching practices. The teachers’ union fears that the Board is ignoring state regulations with its proposed increases in elementary class sizes and the manner used to count English Learners and special education students for mainstream classes. Elementary schools also have lost foreign languages, kindergarten classes have lost paraeducator support, and middle schools have lost advanced math programs.
Teachers also take issue with the elimination of academic supports at the high school, specifically reading and special education services; and student support systems previously provided through the ASPIRE program. Reduction of support staff at Horizons and ONTOP has already critically reduced services for the most at-risk students, and the administrator’s resignation. “All of these actions contradict best practices in education,” said Brock.
The BEA questions the Board’s effort to give administrators the ability to adjust teacher assignments in the name of creating a more flexible organization. “We are concerned because teachers have spent this year dealing with the aftermath of the building principal shuffle, which created wholesale disorientation of both staff and students,” Brock said. Best practices for effective learning demands consistency and stability for students, she added.
The BEA appreciates the generosity of Burlington voters, who have approved budgets presented them, but is concerned with the allocation of funds. Over a three-year period the district’s annual revenues rose by 7.74%, with voters approving an additional $6.1 million. Over that same period, spending on those who actually teach students has dropped by more than $1 million, from 41.4% of the budget in FY16 to 37.2% as proposed for FY18. “Direct services to students must be a priority in the district and it is our belief that the community has been more than willing to pay for such services,” Brock said.
The BEA recognizes that teacher compensation is controversial, but teachers fear that Burlington risks further erosion of the educational programming and services for students if the city fails to be competitive with other districts in the region. To achieve regional comparability, the teachers have offered a proposal that would have BSD faculty average fourth out of the eight Chittenden County school districts. The teachers’ proposal calls for a 5.74% increase for salaries. “It is a matter of investing in education that benefits students,” Brock said. “The district needs to reallocate funds after many years of deferred investment in the compensation of Burlington’s professional educators.”
Burlington’s diverse student population provides both richness and challenges, said Brock, yet the city’s schools have been losing excellent teachers to neighboring districts. “Failure to attract and retain the most gifted professionals who are trained and experienced in working with such a broad spectrum of needs denies students the education they need and deserve,” Brock said.
Health care costs are another controversial issue on the table. The School Board’s proposal follows the statewide agenda issued by the Vermont School Boards Association and seeks to substantially shift the cost of health care to the teachers. The District will save almost $2 million annually under the current health care proposal but plans to devote that savings to other district priorities. The BEA asserts that disproportionately shifting the cost of health care to teachers creates an unnecessary and unwarranted burden on teachers. Current health care benefits are equivalent or less than those offered by other major employers in Burlington. “A plan that denies Burlington's teachers access to health care on par with the working middle class will not attract and retain the best teachers to the profession or to the District,” Brock said. “Such a plan indicates that the Board is not making excellent education a priority.”
The teachers’ workday is also being negotiated. The Board has proposed a substantial reduction in the time set aside during school hours for teachers to prepare for classes and individual student needs. The Board argues that reduced teacher prep time would provide increased flexibility, but teachers argue that they will actually lose the flexible time needed to serve Vermont’s most diverse student population. “Student needs are met during teacher prep time,” Brock said. “It is during prep time when teachers can develop and engage in needed learning interventions; collaborate with colleagues; analyze student performance data; and create the flexible pathways for student learning as required by the state.”
The Board needs to “to work cooperatively and constructively toward a fair and respectful agreement with the professionals who provide direct-student programming and services to the children of Burlington,” Brock said. “We hope the Board avoids taking the same course it navigated last year, imposing a contract that neither meets student needs nor demonstrates collaboration with faculty to solve serious issues facing the district.”