Teacher, support staff contracts expire

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Teachers and support staff in the Colchester School District are working without a contract after their 2016-17 agreements expired June 30.

Negotiations for teacher contracts, held in open session this year, were halted in April when members of the Colchester School Board declared impasse, citing an inability to find common ground on salary proposals.

“After four months we are still apart on the key issue of compensation and believe we haven’t gotten significantly closer to an agreement in recent meetings,” board members wrote in a statement posted to the district website.

Lincoln White, the school board’s lead negotiator in the talks, said last week the district is still working to hire a third-party mediator. With especially high demand this year, though, White said most are booked until August or September.

Board members paused the back-and-forth just before a highly publicized debate began to unfold in Montpelier, when Gov. Phil Scott proposed moving teacher healthcare negotiations to the state level.

That idea failed after a budget veto session late last month, but a compromise with Democrat leaders emerged.

According to VTDigger, the deal will reduce state payments to local school districts by $13 million, requiring school boards to negotiate an 80/20 split on healthcare with their teachers. If they’re unable to stay within those parameters, boards will have to tap their own budgets for the funding.

White said the latest State House agreement did not affect the need for a neutral facilitator in Colchester. In fact, he hopes that individual can now help the board and teachers parse through the specifics of the decision handed down from Montpelier.

“If anything, now it’s going to help us sort through this all, too,” White said. “I think both sides want to make this work.”

Joe Cheney, lead negotiator for the Colchester Education Association and a middle school teacher in the district, could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, negotiators for support staff contracts plan to resume their separate meetings in the near future.

School board chairman Mike Rogers said those talks, which began in February, were put on hold about three weeks ago as both sides awaited a verdict from the legislature on the healthcare plans.

“I was a little dazed and confused about the direction the legislature was going to go in and what our offering would be insurance-wise,” Rogers said. “Now that we have some facts and figures, we can complete negotiations.”

Rogers said the two parties were “very close to a deal,” at their last meeting, but decided to hold off until the board was better able to address the specific healthcare questions posed by support staff representatives.

Those numbers “could impact a certain faction of support staff,” Rogers said. “A dollar here and a dollar there is significant for them. We want to acknowledge that and be respectful of that.”

In a joint statement, staff representatives Patty Ward and Amy Latulippe said support staff contracts differ from teachers’ because of the complex variety of position types. Still, they said talks have been respectful and cooperative.

“We have had positive meetings with the school board and, as with all districts in the state, were waiting for decisions from the governor regarding healthcare insurance and state involvement,” Ward and Latulippe said in an email this week.

“We are currently researching the upcoming statewide implementation and will continue to work with the board towards a contract for the start of the school year,” the message continued.

Rogers, who echoed the start-of-school goal, said the legislature’s last minute decision is the major factor in an extended negotiation season. He said teachers and staff are essentially operating under their old contract agreements until deals are reached.

“Everything just kind of continues as is. We’ll just [move] forward,” Rogers said. “[But] this has been the most difficult negotiation we’ve ever had.”