No contracts in place as classes begin

The Vt. Agency of Education says the Colchester School District can expect $73,000 less in state funding over the next two years as part of the state’s pursuit to save $13 million on school health insurance costs.

At .15 percent of its overall education spending, Colchester’s total projected cut is one of the smallest in the state.

“We didn’t really have much of an inkling of what the numbers were going to be,” school board chairman Mike Rogers said on Tuesday. “The entire process seemed very distant to us, and we weren’t sure how it was going to go.”

The numbers represent the AOE’s estimates for what the district could save by requiring teachers to pay 20 percent of their health care premiums, a split Colchester teachers have agreed to for two decades, representatives on both sides confirmed.

Act 85, the legislature’s budget, requires school districts statewide to reduce budgets by $8.4 million in the current fiscal year and $4.5 million next. The state will achieve those savings regardless of whether districts hit the premium split by withholding education fund payments and forcing local districts to make up the difference.

Rogers said Colchester’s cut won’t really impact ongoing contract negotiations in Colchester. Board member Lincoln White said the district still plans to meet with a neutral mediator on September 12.

At press time, Colchester teachers and support staff were still working without a contract with school now underway.

The school board declared impasse during a meeting in April, deciding to not counter the Colchester Education Association’s latest offer of a 2.9 percent raise to the base salary and an 80/20 split on health insurance premiums.

In an emailed statement, CEA co-president Stephanie Miller said teachers were hopeful a contract would be settled soon, citing requested pay raises in line with inflation and the need to attract and retain top talent.

“When the school board rejected our offer in April without even offering a counter proposal, before declaring impasse, teachers were dismayed,” Miller wrote. “At this point, teachers in Colchester are very concerned that we will end up like surrounding districts, where work stoppage seems inevitable.”

White is hopeful mediation will help the parties sort through the legislative mandate.

“Both sides have positive intent, want the best for students and the community, and are interested in finding common ground,” he wrote in an email to the Sun.

Rogers noted the unusual direction from Montpelier left many districts across the state declaring impasse. The scarcity of available third-party facilitators has caused the process to drag on even longer in Colchester, he said.

Meanwhile, Rogers said negotiations for support staff contracts are essentially completed, with employees voting on the recommendation in the next week or two. Once approved, Rogers said board members can focus exclusively on teacher negotiations.

“We have a wonderful relationship with the CEA, and I think we can come to an agreement relatively soon,” he said. “We’ll kind of let the process play out a little bit, but I think now that we’re back to school, we can kind of sit down together and I’m pretty confident we can resolve this.”

For teachers’ part, Miller said they hope to wrap up negotiations quickly but are unsure what further steps to take.

“We’ve asked for less than what the voters approved, salaries within what others school districts are offering, and within what the internal memos of the board have indicated they find acceptable,” Miller wrote.