Last week, School Board Commissioner Miriam Stoll rightly said “this is a critical time for the district and we need to pull together to move forward. This fact is indisputable.”
Indeed, it is indisputable. Unfortunately, she and her fellow board members have brought us where we are today. And while we firmly believe we can reach a contract settlement for the balance of the school year, the board’s leadership continues to flex political muscle rather than seek respectful common ground.
As the men and women who work in our city’s schools every day, our first and primary priority is teaching Burlington’s children. That’s why we sought a swift, 1-year renewal of our contract more than a year ago. We also knew – as surely did the board – that the coming year will bring significant changes to the health insurance landscape, and having a 1-year contract in place would give us time to focus on the complex negotiations ahead.
Sadly, under the direction of Board Chairman Mark Porter, the board did not share our objective. Indeed, in a virtually unprecedented letter to fellow Chittenden County superintendents and board leaders, Porter asked for advice on how to beat back the union. In the letter, he claimed that Burlington’s teachers were not conciliatory, “aren’t open to discussion” and “refuse to counter.” It is clear in that letter that he never intended to sit down with our negotiating team – all of them teachers, all of them willing to compromise – and reach a quick consensus on a contract.
More disturbing is that instead of talking directly to us, he and the board have hired outside consultants – even when they claim a shortage of money. In addition to their lawyer, the board kept – or keeps, we can’t tell from the information they’ve released to the public – an anti-union consultant on retainer, to the tune of almost $22,500. They have paid at least one former superintendent $20,000 to advise in these negotiations. They have also paid an economist almost $3,600.
The board has consistently refused to release to us or to the public a complete budget; the “line-item” budget produced last week fails to show how expenses align with revenue, how they compare to budgeted amounts, or other details common in most other school district budgets.
For teachers, the lack of transparency; the objective to go after the union early in the process; and the refusal to accept the recommendations of a neutral fact-finder is troubling. Such actions and behaviors only lead to frustration and distrust within the school district and within the community.
Our original intention of having a swift round of negotiations to reach an easy settlement that would have carried most of the now-expired contract forward one year is clearly unattainable. We never left the table. We offered to take what was recommended by the fact-finder.
When the board offered to talk again, we were hopeful. But the board’s “offer” to return to bargaining is, sadly, veneer. The “offer” essentially asks us to talk about everything except salary and benefits. In other words, it isn’t an offer to negotiate at all, but another ploy to make the press and public think they really want to return to the table. They are not.
We still want a contract. We still are willing to return to the table for a true negotiation, without demeaning preconditions. There still is time for members of the board to insist its leadership change course and settle.
I know all of us care about our city, our schools, and our students. We invite the board to put an end to the charade and talk to us seriously and respectfully until we have a contract.