FLETCHER — If the Franklin West Supervisory Union teachers union and school board are going to reach an agreement on a new contract, they’ll have to do it with one scheduled meeting left between the sides and a distance to fill in key negotiation points.
On February 9 at Fletcher Elementary School, the sides were reluctant to move off their health care and salary offers in a three-year contract, and still need to reach consensus on the language in several key amendments of the master agreement.
Currently, teachers are asking for a health care plan with a reimbursement account that covers 80 percent of a gold plan plus 90 percent of the maximum out-of-pocket expenses into the HRA. They’re also asking for all administrative costs to be covered by the board.
The board, which already conceded an HRA to the union, is offering 80 percent of the same plan, plus a fixed amount of coverage in out-of-pocket expenses after teachers meet a set threshold based on the plan. That 80 percent of premium coverage, $2,533 for a gold level plan for one person, would first cover administrative costs plus the health assessment charges in the Vermont state teacher retirement system.
In the board’s proposal, teachers would be responsible for the first $250 out of pocket in a single-person gold plan; the board would then cover $1,750 in an HRA.
For salary, the school board has offered raises of 2.45, 2.96 and 3.05 percent over the course of the three-year contract, on a grid that allows a starting pay for new teachers of $40,300.
The teachers union has asked for 4.25, 3.77 and 3.56 percent increases, on a grid that spreads out salary increases more evenly. The teachers union argued the board’s grid leaves 15 teachers with no increase. The union said it would move off its new money request, but said it is not willing to accept the board’s grid proposal.
Pay grids combine years of experience and educational attainment to establish salaries. Teachers advance as they earn graduate school credits or gain experience, either of which can land a higher salary.
“If you’re not going to do those things, I don’t know what’s left to talk about. I thought things were going well with health care. The other two parts, not so much,” union representative Mark Ladue said.
The teachers union has argued that its health care proposal lowers costs to taxpayers, who will vote on the school budget in March, and said the state has put the burden on local districts to cover projected health care costs for new teachers in retirement, but that mandate was never meant to be transferred directly to the teachers.
The board has a more holistic view on health care and salary costs as a single unit, taking into consideration mandates from the state on level funding, plus the anticipated rising costs of health care over the next three years.
Those sticking points have left the sides in a tenuous situation heading into the final scheduled meeting. If progress can be made, they may consider extending the negotiations. Ladue said at the end of the meeting that, at least in salary, the sides may be closer than it appears.
Regardless, according to FWSU business manager Chris Sumner, the board will struggle to meet the teachers’ salary requests using their proposed grid.
The union also outlined concerns with several amendments in the master agreement.
This includes the board’s ability to lengthen the school day, which opened a discussion about whether union members are treated as salaried or hourly employees.
Ladue said teachers work a 36.5-hour workweek but are looking for flexibility knowing most teachers work far more. The board argued most salaried people work more than what is expected and suggested adopting an eight-hour workday.
The teachers also asked for more specific language in discipline, termination or non-renewal meeting notifications as well as pre-payment for courses and seminars the teachers attend for career development.
The board had a counter argument for each.
After caucusing, the board said it was staying with its health care proposal presented at a Jan. 25 meeting in Fairfax. They would offer a flat $500 for the 15 teachers who would max out on the board’s grid.
“We’re stuck right now, I think,” Ladue said.
The board, Sumner said, wants to bump up starting pay to remain more competitive with other districts. She also said the $1,097 for the teacher retirement system is anticipated to go up by 14 percent next year.
“To achieve what you teachers want using the same kind of grid, you can not achieve what your main goals are. They can’t both be done,” Sumner said.
But before the sides adjourned, the union left the door open to see if the gap can be closed when it comes to salary.
They’ll meet again for the final scheduled time February 22 after the Independent’s press deadline at Georgia Elementary and Middle School.