One of the most important roles of the school board is to negotiate contracts with the three bargaining units in the district: the South Burlington Educators Association (teachers), SBEA Support Professional Unit (support staff) and the South Burlington Administrators Association (principals and activities director).

Contracts with bargaining units usually span one-to-three years, with longer contracts rare. Usually both sides of a negotiating group aim for multi-year contracts, but when time is short or there is a desire to negotiate future years later, a one-year contract may be the most that can be agreed upon. The advantage of a multi-year contract is the peace of mind that comes with knowing the expenses and incomes in future years. Multi-year contracts can also help the district by making budget development more predictable.

When negotiations begin there is often mutual optimism about working together for a contract. This optimism doesn’t disappear, but having to face competing issues of cost and benefit of salaries and benefits can turn the tone from optimistic to contentious. When it appears that there is too much difference between the two sides, a mediator may be called in to help reach an agreement.

If mediation doesn’t bring the sides to an agreement with teachers or administrators, the board could vote to impose a contract for one year. The teachers’ and administrators’ bargaining units may vote to strike, and support staff bargaining units may enter binding arbitration with an outside party.

Reading about contentious negotiations and the threat of a strike can be stressful for those in and around the education community, but it is important to remember that negotiators on all sides are caring adults who are putting in their best efforts, often as volunteers, to help make our schools the best they can be at a cost the community is willing to pay. There is no bad guy, and negotiators respect one another.

When negotiations do get contentious, the subject of finding a better way to settle contracts is often discussed. Other states have different models from Vermont’s strike and imposition model, such as binding arbitration, in which a neutral party hears from both sides and settles the differences with both sides required to accept it. The disadvantage to that model is the unpredictability of the arbitrator’s decision.

In the past several months the board has negotiated agreements with the teachers’ and support staff units that cover the remainder of the current school year and the next two years. In these agreements both sides made concessions and earned gains that were acceptable to both sides.

The board gained concessions from the teachers’ union of more modest current-year salary increases that will allow greater salary increases in our support staff unit. This goal was especially important due to support staff being paid less than their peers in neighboring districts, which has led to increased turnover and inconsistency that hampers student success.

The board has been working with the administrators’ unit since the fall. We hope to wrap up before July 1, when the new contract year begins.

Alex McHenry is the chair of the South Burlington School Board.

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