Contract mediation fails, parties move to fact finding

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Members of the Colchester Education Association sit at the negotiating table in the high school library earlier this year. (File photo)

Members of the Colchester School Board say they’re moving to fact finding after a four-hour session with the Colchester Education Association and a neutral mediator failed to produce a contract agreement.

“During mediation, it became clear that the parties have different perspectives on what a reasonable salary increase would be,” board vice-chairman Lincoln White wrote in an emailed statement. “The next step is to move towards fact finding to obtain an independent third party perspective.”

Negotiations, which started in December, were originally held in open session, with members of the public invited to sit in on the back-and-forth. In March, officials told the Sun it was all part of an effort to increase transparency.

Since the board declared an impasse in April, however, all talks have happened behind closed doors.

The Vermont labor commissioner can appoint a fact finder if an impasse is not resolved more than 15 days after a mediator is sent, according to Vermont statute. The chosen appointee can then hold informal hearings and collect any information “relevant to resolution of the dispute.”

After weighing cost of living, comparative wages and the financial ability of the municipal employer, among other factors, the fact finder will issue a written recommendation. The report, which is advisory and non-binding, must be made public if the parties do not come to a resolution within 10 days, statute says.

At last Tuesday’s regularly scheduled meeting, school board clerk Craig Kieny said the sides came a little closer in the meeting with mediator Cynthia Jefferies but reiterated parties still remained very far apart.

Neither Colchester party provided their most recent offers.

“Based on settlements and fact finding reports from other Vermont districts, the board negotiating team believes there is a strong possibility the fact finder will recommend a settlement in line with the board’s most recent proposals,” White wrote.

In the last offers exchanged publicly, the board proposed a 2.15 percent increase on the 2017-18 base salary and a 2.2 percent increase over the subsequent two years.

The CEA countered with 2.9, 2.8 and 3.1 percent increases for 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2019-20, respectively. The association asked the district to cover 80 percent of teachers’ healthcare premiums, a split in line with the recommendation from Gov. Phil Scott.

They also requested the school fund 90 percent of a health reimbursement arrangement for out-of-pocket expenses for employees who choose the Gold Consumer-Directed-Health Plan plan and prorate the HRA contribution on all other plans so costs are equal for the district.

The board’s last public offer for FY18 would cost about $304,000 of the $510,000 budgeted for contracts. The CEA proposal would run $506,500, after subtracting the money the district would save by replacing retiring teachers with less experienced teachers, according to a presentation provided by the CEA.

Burlington School District’s two-year contract, ratified last Wednesday after teachers went on strike, provides a 2.5 percent salary increase with an 81/19 percent split on health insurance premiums in year one and 2.75 salary percent in year two with an 80/20 percent healthcare split.

“The board believes we’ll reach an agreement with the CEA that supports high quality educational opportunities while working to control costs,” White wrote. “Our mutual goal is a contract that balances the competing goals of the cost to taxpayers and an exceptional education for students.”