Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
School and teachers union representatives gathered Thursday night in Barre to sign a four-year contract after a years-long negotiation process. From left are: Tom Treece of the Barre Education Association, Lucas Herring from the Barre City School Board, Brenda Buzzell from the Barre Town School Board, Tamara Cooley from the Barre Town Education Association and Norma Malone from the Spaulding High School Board.
BARRE — A contract with teachers that took more than a year to negotiate, two months to ratify and four more months to reduce to writing was signed in a matter of minutes Thursday.
The signatures could have taken less time, but they didn’t by design as participants in an unusually protracted process paused to exhale as they literally dotted the last “i’s” and crossed the last “t’s” on the first-ever contract to cover all of the teachers in the two-town, three-school Barre Supervisory Union.
The ceremonial signing was as anticlimactic as it gets, because key features of the contract — most notably pay raises — kicked in after the last of the three affected school boards voted to ratify it in June.
The contract might have been signed back then if not for the need to clarify the difference between a “sabbatical leave” and a “leave of absence.” By the time that question cropped up teachers had scattered for the summer, and school officials decided to wait for their return.
The issue has been resolved and the new language incorporated in the four-year contract, which was already well into its second year before it was signed Thursday night by representatives of the Barre, Barre Town and Spaulding High School boards, as well as two teachers unions.
Tamara Cooley, president of the Barre Town Education Association, said Thursday members of her union were pleased to finally put a period on the long collective bargaining process.
“We’re glad to be able to move on from here,” said Cooley, a fourth-grade teacher in Barre Town. “It’s taken so long, it’s going to be good to finally have (the contract) in our hands.”
Lucas Herring, chairman of the Barre City School Board, echoed that assessment.
“We can actually start focusing on education rather than contracts,” Herring said, suggesting that is true of teachers in their classrooms and members of three school boards that are all poised to begin their annual budget deliberations.
According to Herring, the new contract will bring some clarity to those conversations because this year board members will be armed with hard numbers about teacher salaries, not guesses.
“That’s a big difference right there,” he said.
Teachers at centralized elementary schools in Barre and Barre Town, as well as at Spaulding High School and the Spaulding-based Barre Technical Center, have already received retroactive pay raises for the fiscal year that ended June 30 based on now-abandoned salary schedules, and the transition to a single merged salary schedule began July 1.
The complexity associated with merging two different salary schedules was widely cited by both sides as a major sticking point. The negotiation process started in February 2011, stalled that May, and involved a marathon mediation session and a trip through the fact-finding process before producing a tentative settlement in late March.
The new contract was ratified by both unions and all three school boards in early June, though it was initially rejected by the Barre Town board. Its members were concerned that teachers at that school might not have understood the ramifications of a plan to invest more than $1.2 million in “new money” for teacher salaries over the four-year contract.
According to the terms of the contract, some of that “new money” was distributed under the old salary schedules — one that covered teachers at Barre City Elementary and Middle School, Spaulding High School and the Barre Technical Center, and the other covering teachers at Barre Town Middle and Elementary School. The contract called for 1.5 percent “new money” for wages to be distributed under the old salary schedules for the contract’s first year. Those raises were paid retroactively because the contract was settled with less than a month left in the fiscal year.
The contract’s second year started July 1 and was accompanied by a 2 percent infusion of “new money” for salaries. That figure will increase to 2.5 percent next July and 2.75 percent in the final year of the contract, which will begin July 1, 2014.
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