Bill to Ban Vermont Teachers' Strikes Gains New Momentum

The Education Committee of the Vermont House voted Tuesday to support a ban on strikes by teachers and contract terms dictated by school boards.

The 8-3 vote on an amendment by Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, came five months after teachers walked off the job for a week in Vermont's best-paying school district, South Burlington, an action that rekindled interest in the sort of strike bans already in place in more than three dozen other states.

But the Education Committee could end up at odds with the House panel that usually handles labor issues. Rep. Helen Head, chairwoman of the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee, said her panel previously voted unanimously in an unofficial straw poll to maintain the status quo in collective bargaining for teachers.

Wright said he expected the matter would go back to Head's committee and likely end up on the House floor with a positive recommendation from the Education Committee and a negative one from the labor panel.

Head was less sure. "I don't know what the process is going to be from here," she said.

The Education Committee took testimony on the strike ban earlier Tuesday from the executive director of the National Education Association's Vermont unit, as well as from the chief lawyer for the Vermont School Boards' Association.

Both the union's Joel Cook and the school boards' Nicole Mace offered qualified support for a ban on strikes and contract impositions. But they disagreed sharply on whether unresolved labor disputes should be sent to binding arbitration, with Cook saying that would be the proper resolution and Mace bringing in an outside decision maker would be a mistake.

Such arbitrators have "no fiscal responsibility nor accountability" to local voters who elect School Board members, Mace said. "Often these individuals are from out of state and are generally unfamiliar with community issues and Vermont's education finance system," she said.

"Handing decisions that impact up to 80 percent of school budgets to these out-of-state neutrals is undemocratic and strikes at the heart of local control," she said.

Instead, she pushed the method used in Massachusetts, where a third-party mediator is brought in to help the two sides to the dispute work through their differences, with the threat of penalties on both sides if there's no resolution with a year of the last contract's expiration.

Those were the terms of the Wright amendment that won the committee's support.

Cook told lawmakers the union would only support an end to strikes if binding arbitration were selected as the new method of getting a new agreement.

"We are willing, but not anxious, to replace the right to strike and the right to impose with binding arbitration," Cook said in an interview after the hearing.

In both his testimony and the interview, Cook suggested that lawmakers consider giving local school districts the option of choosing binding arbitration or the traditional strikes and contract impositions as the responses to labor impasses.

He also argued that the impacts of strikes historically have been minimal, offering the committee some math that he said showed a single statewide snowstorm can cause more students to miss more school days than strikes have during the past 40 years. 

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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