In the words of “The Princess Bride’s” male protagonist, Westley, “If there can be no arrangement, then we are at an impasse.”
Indeed, that’s where the South Burlington School Board and the South Burlington Educators’ Association stand following negotiations and a mediated session last month. But it’ll be no “battle of the wits” to resolve the stalemate.
Instead, the two parties intend to take a more traditional, perhaps less exciting, path entering a fact-finding phase. Soon, they will schedule a hearing, during which a factfinder will open issues for both groups and collect data to inform a report. The factfinder will have 30-45 days following the hearing to write the report recommending settlement terms.
Once completed, and before made public, either party can modify their offer, School Board Clerk Bridget Burkhardt said.
A mediated conversation can follow.
Options after fact-finding can include: settling a contract; continuing negotiations; the school board imposing working conditions or the teachers’ union striking, according to Noah Everitt, president of the South Burlington Educators’ Association.
“We declared impasse for the reason that we have in previous negotiations, which is that we just felt like we really needed a third party to help us. We were just kind of at a stage where we were continuing to just go over the same ground,” Burkhardt said.
Both Burkhardt and Everitt say it’s too early to say what will happen.
“In typical times we would be very focused on contract issues, but during the pandemic I think what we’re really focused on is being ready for kids,” Everitt said of teachers.
Based on prior negotiations and fact-finding processes, Burkhardt thinks it could take until late October before the board and union could reach a resolution.
“All we can do is keep doing our best, bringing our best at the table, and trying to work out a settlement that’s fair for everyone, both for the teachers and the district and the community,” she said.
It’s not unusual for teachers to start the school year without a contract.
“I think in the 10 years I’ve been in South Burlington every negotiating year has begun the school year without a contract,” Everitt said.
Per state statute, the prior year’s contract terms are followed until a new agreement is reached or the school board imposes working conditions and automatic step increases according to Elizabeth Fitzgerald, the School Board Chair.
Last year’s teacher contracts include a step increase.
Call to freeze
In August, the school board proposed that South Burlington teachers take a complete salary freeze with no increase to base pay or step increase, according to Burkhardt. The union declined that offer and countered. Burkhardt was not at liberty to discuss that counteroffer.
In July, the school board moved to limit contingency funds reserved for teacher and support staff contract negotiations to the amount needed to cover step increases for employees covered by unresolved agreements.
Any contingency funds beyond that amount should be used at the superintendent’s discretion, they voted — with hope those funds could go towards unreimbursed COVID-related expenses.
If the union and board were to reach a contract agreement that included compensation beyond step increases, those funds would have to be taken from another area of the budget.
In May, South Burlington School District administrators committed to taking a salary freeze for the FY 2020-21 school year — with an agreement to discuss how the statewide health insurance benefit mandated by Act 11 of 2018 will be incorporated into their contracts.
Since then, outspoken community members have called for all South Burlington teachers to take a pay freeze.
On July 12, ahead of the third school budget vote, Kristie Wilson Stern took to the South Burlington Schools Decision 2020 Facebook page to voice her thoughts on the matter.
“I think David Young set a great example, followed by the administration union by taking a pay freeze for this year. However, the SBEA has refused to move,” she wrote. “The community is raising funds and spending a lot of energy, time and money trying to convince the “other side” to vote accordingly. Instead of pressuring each other, it’s a great time to pressure the SBEA to take a pay freeze and put in place a sustainable path for the community to move forward.”
South Burlington School District Support Staff contract negotiations are ongoing.
The district also has a non-union support staff group.
“The support staff contract is a smaller contract in terms of its impact on the district budget. It’s a smaller group of people and the salaries are much, much lower than the teachers,” Burkhardt said.
Superintendent David Young, as head administrator, sets salaries and benefits for those employees. During a school budget discussion, Young said he would not recommend salary increases for most non-union support staff, Burkhardt said.