Contract talks with teachers in the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) have entered the mediation phase with just several weeks remaining on the current labor contract.
At the April 28 HUUSD Board meeting, several teachers spoke briefly during the public comment time to request that the board support “an equitable contract” for all teachers in the school district.
Teachers Tommy Young from Waitsfield Elementary School, Jonah Ibson from Harwood Union High School and Eric Eley from Crossett Brook Middle School each delivered that message.
Board chair Torrey Smith asked them to elaborate on what that meant. Young volunteered, noting that since the district merged several years ago, pay scales have not been aligned and wage disparities remain between high school and elementary level teachers with similar experience.
Those teaching younger students are paid significantly lower than those teaching at the high school, he said. “We don’t feel that one job is different than the other,” he said. “We feel they should be compensated the same way.”
Moretown Elementary School teacher Brenda Hartshorn commented, telling the board that although she plans to retire at the end of this school year and would not personally benefit from wage adjustments, she supports what she termed “parity” for teachers. “I know our elementary teachers are making way less” than high school teachers, she said. “We’re talking in the thousands of dollars.”
The current labor agreements expire June 30. Contract talks began in December between teams representing the Harwood Union Education Association -- the union representing teachers and staff -- and the school district’s administration.
The employee team consists of 13 teachers from various grade levels with all schools represented. Team leaders are Jessica Deane from Harwood and Andrew Emrich from Thatcher Brook, according to association co-president Justina Boyden.
For the first time in her 13-year tenure with the district, Superintendent Brigid Nease is not leading labor negotiations. The school district’s lawyer Pietro Lynn along with school board members Kristen Rodgers of Moretown and Christine Sullivan of Waitsfield are leading the district’s efforts.
The negotiations have focused on drafting two labor agreements -- one covering teachers and another for support staff.
The professional staff contract covers approximately 220 members of the pre-K-through-grade-12 teaching staff across the district’s seven schools. Boyden said this includes classroom teachers, special educators, integrated arts teachers (music, art, physical education, etc.), nurses, interventionists, speech and language pathologists and school counselors.
The educational support staff contract encompasses approximately 120 other nonteaching staff. The district’s remaining 365 positions include administration and other nonbargaining unit members.
“This past contract was the first time in which all schools in the district were operating under one contract,” Boyden noted.
So far, it appears that the support staff agreement has been completed but the teachers’ contract is headed to mediation. In a memo dated April 12 ahead of the board’s April 14 meeting, finance and operations manager Michelle Baker included a note on contract negotiations: “A Tentative Agreement has been reached with support staff. Attorney Pietro Lynn is finalizing the agreement and this will be an agenda item at an upcoming board meeting. We are awaiting scheduling for the mediation session with teachers.”
Due to the closed-door nature of the talks, details of the proposals under consideration are not available to the public while contracts are being hammered out.
Boyden did say that the school board in March declared an impasse at what was the fourth negotiating session. At its March 24 meeting, the board joined by Baker had a 24-minute executive session to discuss labor negotiations although no action was taken.
The next steps will be mediation sessions; it’s unclear if they have begun yet with the mutually- agreed-upon mediator, Ira Lobel.
Sullivan explained that the proposed agreements at the end of this process will go first to the bargaining unit for approval. “The [school] board would ratify a contract only after the appropriate bargaining unit itself ratifies any new agreement,” she said. “We are hopeful that we will have new agreements in place soon.”
If mediation stretches past the June 30 contract-ending date, Sullivan said the most recent agreement would remain in place. “Any changes to something like the salary schedule would be applied retroactively with employees receiving ‘catch up’ payments once that happens,” she explained.
Boyden echoed the teachers from last week’s school board meeting in her assessment of the process. “Our mission is always to attain a fair and equitable contract for all staff, that will help retain the amazing educators we have in the district and allow us to have the tools and resources to best serve our students,” she said.
The negotiations have unfolded in the midst of an unprecedented school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone connected with public schools from families and students to teachers and administrators has had to adjust to public health restrictions and in many cases reinvent how instruction is delivered and schools function. The Harwood district, for example, has run an entirely remote school option this year for dozens of students with dedicated teachers. The rest have managed in a hybrid model with students and teachers juggling both remote and in-person learning.
Schools have experienced sporadic switches to all-remote learning for occasional instances of COVID-19 cases or lack of staffing due to quarantine requirements. For the most part, however, they have remained open with only about 30 cases of COVID-19 reported among the district’s 2,010 students and staff all year.
In her periodic reports to the community and the school board, Nease has emphasized the constant adaptations staff, students and families have made this year.
In a February letter to the administration regarding the elimination next fall of a teaching team with four teachers at Harwood Middle School, the education association’s co-presidents Boyden and Steve Rand remarked on these accomplishments as well: “It has been impressive this year how, in the midst of a global pandemic, our schools have been able to keep the lights on and the doors open for business. We are delivering meals. We are providing health screenings and counseling. And we are doing our best to keep children active physically and intellectually.”
Scagliotti is the editor of the Waterbury Roundabout. Reprinted courtesy of the Waterbury Roundabout.