BARRE — A new approach to labor negotiations has produced a pair of all-too-familiar results in the Barre Unified Union School District. Roughly 270 unionized teachers and about 125 support staff just entered the final day of their collectively bargained contracts, even as negotiations involving new agreements have suddenly stalled.
High hopes that “interest based bargaining” could deliver speedier settlements than more adversarial negotiations historically have fizzled even as the two-town, three-school district was readying to change chief executives.
Departing Superintendent John Pandolfo, whose last official day on the job in Barre is today, had hoped to leave his successor, David Wells, with a pair of settled labor contracts.
Instead, Wells will step into the same circumstance Pandolfo did when he replaced John Bacon as superintendent of what was then the Barre Supervisory Union five years ago.
Pandolfo’s first day on the job in 2015 coincided with unionized teachers and para-educators first day working under the terms of just-expired contracts. The same will be true when Wells settles in as superintendent on Wednesday.
Citing recent correspondence, Pandolfo reluctantly acknowledged as much while briefing school directors on the status of negotiations during virtual board meeting both he and Wells attended late last week.
“I think we can publicly say … that we are officially at impasse on both the teacher negotiation and the para-educator negotiation,” Pandolfo said.
Both bargaining units are represented by the Barre Education Association and it sounds like the experiment with interest based bargaining has been abandoned in favor of a more traditional approach that starts with both sides exchanging competing proposals.
“We are waiting on the association on both counts to have formal proposals prepared that can be shared in both directions,” Pandolfo said, noting the district’s proposal is finished and in the hands of its labor attorney, Scott Cameron.
“The ball is in their court at this point,” Pandolfo said of the association.
“We feel a sense of urgency to resolve this and I certainly hope they feel a sense of urgency to resolve this,” he added.
Pandolfo’s remarks provided a rare public update with respect to negotiations started last November amid cautious optimism around involving the use of a collaborative collective bargaining process the begins with each side outlining the “goals” and “issues” the would like to address.
By January, the two sides had prioritized the list of issues and agreed to 10 articles for inclusion in the new contract. A month later they were preparing a joint statement, and in mid-March, COVID-19 forced them to regroup before finally approving the first of two public statements – each read during virtual board meetings by School Director Gina Akley.
“The negotiating teams for the association and the district resumed meeting in a modified remote (interest based bargaining) format,” Akley said reading from a prepared statement on April 23. “We had an intense discussion of the unprecedented challenges that the coronavirus pandemic has burdened our educational system with. We will be meeting weekly beginning next Wednesday to continue to work toward a settlement agreement.”
Akley, who serves as chairwoman of the board’s three-member negotiating team, read a similar statement at the May 14 board meeting – less than 24 hours after it was jointly approved by both negotiating teams.
“The parties continue challenging discussions on wages, benefits and other economic issues,” she said. “We came to agreement on language around health benefits. The parties are setting a date to continue discussions on the outstanding issues that remain.”
The two sides met – perhaps for the last time – on May 26. Board members were briefed – first publicly, then privately – on the status of negotiations at that time. The public portion noted the four-hour duration of a bargaining session they were told to not result in a jointly approved statement.
If there was a subsequent bargaining session, there hasn’t been any public mention of it, though Pandolfo indicated there has been “correspondence” that prompted him to announce the impasse.
Expired contracts have been more the rule than the exception in Barre, where mediators and fact finders have been frequent visitors and working under the terms of lapsed agreements has been relatively routine.
It took a teachers’ strike that shuttered schools for several days in 2005 to bring a divisive round of negotiations to a close and five years later school board negotiators unilaterally imposed working conditions on teachers ending another protracted round of negotiations. That one-year arrangement was eventually replaced with a collectively bargaining contract that was finally ratified nearly a year after the earlier agreement expired.
The impasse Pandolfo inherited when he took over as superintendent in 2015 was comparatively short. Declared two weeks before his July 1 start date, the impasse was over and the new contract ratified, without any outside assistance, before the end of August.
On Wednesday, Wells will step into a similar situation with financial uncertainty associated with COVID-19 as an added wrinkle.