School district takes contract talks public

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Since teacher contract negotiations between the Colchester School Board and the Colchester Education Association began on December 13, every session has been open to the public for the first time.

Although parts of the teacher contract negotiations were publically accessible when the contract was last renegotiated three years ago, CSD superintendent Amy Minor said this is the first time the district has had “full, open negotiations.”

“We tested open negotiations three years ago,” said Lincoln White, one of the three school trustees on the negotiating team. “We were one of the first in the state to do it.”

Unlike other schools in Chittenden County whose boards typically hold teacher negotiations exclusively in executive sessions that are not open to community members, Colchester has emphasized transparency in an effort to inform residents on decisions that impact taxes, officials said.

“Our hope is to create a successor agreement that is fair to the students, teachers and taxpayers of Colchester,” CEA president Joe Cheney wrote in an email to The Sun.

Because salaries and benefits comprise the largest portion of the school budget, the district’s administration felt some residents’ frustration over how tax dollars are spent could be relieved if they were privy to the process, Minor said.

“We really want to increase transparency and ensure that taxpayers have this opportunity to understand how and why the school budget is the way it is, and how and why [their] taxes are going up,” Minor said.

The two three-member panels have met three times in the Colchester High School Media Center since their first December meeting to work out a new contract that will replace the current one that expires on June 30.

At their first meeting, the CEA and board worked to develop a set of ground rules that established policies around decorum, evidentiary requirements and meeting schedules, among other topics. The rules were finalized at the panels’ January 10 meeting.

During that same session, and at the following one held in January 31, both sides presented initial proposals, asked clarifying questions and provided rationale for their positions.

In her first year as superintendent, Minor has a mission to make sure residents are informed on the budget they will consider on March 7. Although she does not participate in the negotiation process to avoid conflicts of interest, she lauded the teams’ joint decision to negotiate openly, and said she sees no downside.

“When we’re talking about spending taxpayers’ dollars, I think they should have full disclosure,” she said. “The process is important, and I think that I would also acknowledge that negotiations are highly complicated and there’s a lot of strategy that goes into them.”

Despite the complexity that negotiations entail, Minor said the back-and-forth over the healthcare portion of teachers’ contracts might be less turbulent than in other school districts.

Currently, every district in the state is renegotiating teacher contracts in large part because the existing healthcare program will no longer exist as of December 30, Minor said.

In Colchester, the school district currently pays 80 percent of teachers’ healthcare premium – a figure that falls in line with Gov. Phil Scott’s proposal to school boards across the state. In other districts, teachers are responsible for less than 20 percent of the premium, which could make negotiations more difficult, Minor said.

“Even though it’s still going to be really challenging, it might be a little easier because we’re already at what Gov. Scott was asking us to do,” Minor said.

As the panels continue to move forward, Minor said if talks go smoothly, she is confident the district will continue to hold open negotiations in the future.

Although there is no set date to conclude negotiations, if the contract isn’t finalized by the first day of school, the district could find itself in conundrum surrounding the new healthcare program.

According to Minor, the district would have to abide by a set of rules that apply to schools in session without current teacher contracts.

“My understanding from other superintendents and the history of this district is that it usually takes six months to a year to complete [the negotiation] process,” Minor said. “Not all districts have a three-year contract, but that has historically been a trend of teacher contracts in Colchester.”

The next negotiation session is scheduled for March 14 at 6 p.m. in the media center at Colchester High School.