How much teacher salaries should (or should not) increase, contributions to health care costs and how teachers receive annual step increments are three areas where the local school boards and local teachers associations disagree.

After negotiating through the spring and earlier part of the summer -- and deadlocking -- the Washington West school boards and teachers associations for Harwood Union and the area elementary schools went to fact finding. The Factfinder's Report was issued on August 30 and made public on September 10.

In the 42-page document, factfinder Ira Lobel spells out specific areas of contention between the parties, some mundane and having to do with creating uniformity between the high school and elementary school contracts. Local elementary school contracts were made uniform several years ago and during this round of contract negotiations, school board members are working to unify the high school and elementary school contracts.

WAGES AND HEALTH CARE

Perhaps the most contentious area of disagreement between the parties has to do with wage increases for the coming year. The school boards proposed a 1 percent reduction of each teachers' 2009-10 salary and proposed no further increase in base salaries, no step or column movement and no increases to teachers who are off the step/column schedule (the step/column schedule increases wages for teachers based on seniority and educational level). The board further proposed that that 2009-10 salary schedule - as reduced by 1 percent - become the 2010-11 pay schedule.

The teachers associations proposed a two-year contract with a 3.5 percent increase in 2010-11 and 4.5 percent in 2011-2012. And the associations proposed that each teacher would advance one step in salary schedule annually.

Factfinder Lobel, writing at length about the difficulty of Vermont's current economic crisis, urged both parties to consider this summer's contract between the Vermont State Employees Association and the state of Vermont calling for a 3 percent reduction in 2010-11 and 2011-2012.

VSEA CONTRACT

Lobel notes that the teachers associations argue that the district has the ability to pay and has budgeted money for increases, and argued that the actual cost-of-living increase for 2010 was 2.5 percent.

Lobel wrote that both parties must keep in mind the contract between the state and the state employees union calling for the 3 percent reduction.

"This settlement must be considered in any recommendation. A significant number of voters and taxpayers in the community are state employees whose funding sources are similar to teachers and school district. A settlement in this supervisory union that has any wage increase could easily lose support of an electorate that is already seeing their own wages being cut or frozen. While these communities have always supported education, school boards must constantly assess and balance increased personnel costs with taxpayer acceptability, especially in situations where a significant portion of the taxpayers are receiving pay freezes or cuts," Lobel wrote.

WAGE FREEZE

He ultimately recommended a one-year wage freeze, except for column (educational level) increases, and he rejected the union's call for a two-year contract.

In terms of health care costs and plans, currently district employees pay 12 percent of the premium costs for an individual, couple or family membership. Employees who participate in a parity program (have medical coverage elsewhere or through a spouse/partner) are compensated at an amount similar to the regular employees' plan.

The board is proposing increasing the employee contribution to 16 percent (Fayston teachers already pay 15 percent) and adding a third type of coverage with a high deductible of which the district would pay $1,000 for individuals and $2,000 for couples/families and those employees contributing 16 percent towards the cost of that program.

The associations want to keep the current plans as they are.

PRIVATE SECTOR EMPLOYEES

The factfinder pointed out that private sector employees pay a far greater percentage of their health care and often for an inferior plan.

"This clearly can cause political problems in the community when seeking school budget acceptance. However, it is essential to compare the benefits of these teachers with other employees similarly situated in both Washington County and the state."

Lobel noted that in other parts of the state teachers are now paying over 15 percent of their premiums and pointed out that contributions from education sector employees are more advantageous than other sectors of employment in the state. He also pointed out that Vermont state employees have been paying 20 percent of their health care costs for over 20 years and that in the private sector only 60 percent of Vermont employers even offer health insurance and cover an average of 80 percent of the costs.

Ultimately Lobel suggested that the health care plans and contribution remain the same, in light of his recommended wage freeze. A full copy of the report is available at the Washington West Supervisory Union. The parties will continue their negotiations in the coming weeks in hopes of reaching a compromise.
 

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