Bill addressing teacher contracts draws opposition
By JOSH O’GORMAN
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | February 14,2014
MONTPELIER — A House bill that would require binding arbitration for teacher contracts has support from neither the teachers union nor the state school boards association.
The House Committee on Education heard testimony Thursday on H.318, which “proposes to prohibit teachers and school administrators from striking and school boards from imposing contracts and to require mandatory binding arbitration.”
Joel Cook, executive director of the Vermont-NEA — which represents the interests of teachers in the state — expressed opposition to the bill on behalf of his organization.
“It is not our position that you adopt this law,” Cook told the committee, saying that while the Vermont-NEA would be willing to support binding arbitration as long as school boards cede the right to impose a contract, the bill as written “would need significant changes to make it the acceptable method to accomplish this.”
Under the bill, when a teachers union and a school board find themselves at an impasse, they would each submit their “last best” offers to the Vermont Labor Relations Board, which would then review the offers and choose the one it saw as being the best, when considering factors such as the ability of the district to pay for increased costs and how the proposed contract compared to those found in schools in similar communities.
The state Labor Relations Board would only be allowed to choose one of the proposals in its entirety, without amendment, and that decision would be final and binding.
Among the teachers union’s objections is use of the words “imposed contracts,” because, as Cook pointed out, a contract is an agreement between two parties and not something that is imposed by one party upon another.
The Vermont-NEA also objects to the state Labor Relations Board being the designated arbitrator, suggesting that, instead, the arbitrator be chosen by the parties.
Nicole Mace, associate director for legal services for the Vermont School Boards Association, reiterated her association’s longtime resolution that opposes mandatory binding arbitration, while noting a new resolution that calls for a review of the state’s collective bargaining laws as they relate to education.
Mace noted that the current laws, which date back to the 1960s, were born out of what she called “industrial unionism” and are “increasingly out of step with the contemporary obligations of education.”
“Without examining the entire framework to determine whether it could be improved in some way that promotes a collaborative, solutions-oriented approach to bargaining, we are unable to support a move to mandatory binding interest arbitration,” Mace said.
In place of collective bargaining — which she said creates an often-contentious divide between labor and management — Mace advocated “collaborative bargaining,” which calls for each side to demonstrate its proposals are in the best interest of the students and are fair to employees.
Under the collaborative bargaining model, negotiations between a school board and a teachers union would be held in open session, as opposed to the current model where negations are held in executive session and are closed to the public.
Christopher Kibbe, superintendent of the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union — which includes schools in Bellows Falls, Saxtons River and Westminster — offered testimony on the current collective bargaining model, as well as the prospects of collaborative bargaining.
His supervisory union is 18 months into a protracted impasse between teachers and school boards, the second difficult contract negation in a row. Kibbe said he has trouble getting board members to serve on negotiating committees.
“The people who do serve on the committees have their own agendas and entrenched ideas, but that is true on both sides,” said Kibbe, who spoke in favor of a statewide teachers contract so his supervisory union could “get out of the negotiating business.”
As for the notion of collaborative bargaining, Kippe said, “There is a lack of trust that goes back a long ways and there is no interest in collaborative bargaining.”
The only person to offer testimony in favor of the bill was Rebecca Holcombe, secretary for the state Agency of Education, who offered support for a bill that would prohibit teacher strikes.
“I feel very strongly that maintaining continuity throughout the school day and the school year is critical,” Holcombe said. “It disrupts learning and we know many children come to school to eat. It is a safe place for them.”
Since 1978, there have been 25 teacher strikes, with the most recent being a weeklong strike in 2012 in the Rutland Southwest Supervisory Union.