Canceled! School's Out in Vt. City While Teachers Strike

South Burlington's school board and teachers are at an impasse over compensation

Classes are canceled at South Burlington, Vermont's five public schools indefinitely, because teachers are on strike. With no negotiations planned until Thursday, and with Friday a pre-scheduled day without classes, it appears there will be no school for the rest of the week in the busy city neighboring Burlington.

Educators have accused the school board of dragging its heels on coming to the table to hash out a new contract, saying their previous deal expired June 30. "This board has refused to negotiate," said South Burlington Education Association chief negotiator Eric Stone. "And that's led to this crisis."

The school board disputes that it has been stalling, calling Tuesday morning's strike a “pressure tactic.” "It's a crisis of their own making," said Martin LaLonde, the clerk of the South Burlington School Board.

The sides are at an impasse over total compensation packages: both health care costs and pay structures.

The Associated Press reported that LaLonde said the board, reeling from local property tax increases of more than 7 percent in 2013 and more than 6 percent this year, had sought savings on the health insurance coverage the district offers teachers, but had since dropped that goal. In exchange, he said the board asked for lower pay increase than the roughly 3 percent in each of the next three years that had been called for by a neutral factfinder during the summer.

Stone said the teachers want to see a deal that reflects the factfinder's report and recommendations. "I would say the community of South Burlington knows what they're getting for their tax dollar," he said. "They are getting an education system that is one of the best in the state."

According to the Vermont Education Agency, South Burlington's teachers are the highest-paid in the state, earning, on average, annual salaries of nearly $73,000. The average salary of all public school teachers in Vermont is nearly $54,500, the agency said.

The South Burlington School Board does not dispute that South Burlington's teachers are do a very good job; LaLonde praised their good performance in a New England Cable News interview. But he said taxpayers need some relief.

"We don't think we need to keep growing the premium at this time when lots of people are having a difficult time keeping up with the tax increases," LaLonde told NECN.

Several mothers and their young children went to a playground in the city's Dorset Park Tuesday morning, in search of activities to do while school was canceled. "I support our teachers 100 percent, but I'm looking forward to my kids getting back to school and hope that it's resolved quickly," mom Caitlin Brouillard said.

On a nearby field, 15-year-old varsity soccer player Annika Nielsen and teammates met to practice unofficially. Sports and other extracurricular activities are canceled during the strike. Nielsen told NECN there had been two games on the schedule this week, with playoffs starting next week. "A lot of the seniors are upset," she said. "We put a lot of time throughout the season into soccer and into practices, so to have that kind of taken away suddenly is a little frustrating and upsetting."

There are no negotiations scheduled until Thursday. LaLonde said that was the first time all its members could possibly get together, because one of the board members is out of state.

Tuesday, the teachers in South Burlington filed a complaint of unfair labor practices with the Vermont Labor Relations Board against the city's school board. The filing alleges the South Burlington School Board tried to negotiate directly with education association members, in violation of collective bargaining practices, and employed stalling tactics to delay reaching a settlement.

The school board said it has handled its negotiations with good faith, and said it looks forward to working with teachers to craft a deal that is fair to them and the community. "We do hope that we can resolve this soon," LaLonde said.

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