EAST MONTPELIER — A one-year deal that will adjust salaries and change benefits for roughly 190 unionized teachers employed in the Washington Central Supervisory Union is now all but done.
More than a month after negotiators announced they’d reached a tentative settlement in contract talks that started last November, the labor agreement has been ratified by most of its required signatories.
There are a few stragglers, and it will be awhile before one of them — the Berlin School Board — can formally approve the agreement. The Berlin board hasn’t been able to legally meet since three of its five seats went vacant on Town Meeting Day, and that won’t change until after an April 23 special election restores its missing quorum.
On the heels of a two-year contract that boosted new money for wages by 5 percent — 2.4 percent in the first year of the agreement and an additional 2.6 percent last July — the new deal would invest 3.1 percent new money in the salary schedule for teachers. Wage increases for individual teachers will be dictated by where they fall on the schedule and will go into effect July 1.
On health insurance, union negotiators agreed teachers would pick up a larger percentage of their premiums in exchange for the school district’s fully funding Health Reimbursement Accounts (HRAs) that were established under the current contract as a way to address the potential for an increase in out-of-pocket expenses.
The change will require teachers, who now pay 18 percent of their premiums, to pick up 20 percent of those costs, while the school districts, which have paid 90 percent of HRAs to cover out-of-pocket expenses, will pick up 100 percent of that expense.
Superintendent Bill Kimball said the change was a financial wash for the school districts and reflected an arrangement preferred by teachers.
Berlin School Directors Vera Frazier and Nicolle Ferrier both indicated their support for a contract that they expect to ratify when the board meets on April 24 — a day after Julie O’Keefe and possibly a write-in candidate or two is elected. O’Keefe is the only announced candidate for three vacant seats on the five-member board.
The rest of the Washington Central school boards ratified the contract during brief meetings held at U-32 Middle and High School on Wednesday.
In a flurry of separate votes, teachers in several schools followed suit. Those employed at elementary schools in Calais, East Montpelier and Worcester led the way, while teachers at Berlin Elementary School are voting on Friday.
All are members of the Washington Central Education Association, as are teachers at Rumney Memorial School in Middlesex. The Rumney teachers haven’t scheduled a vote, but the association’s president, Sonya Rhodes, predicted Friday the contract will be ratified when the votes from all five schools are totaled.
“I don’t anticipate a problem,” said Rhodes, a math interventionist at Doty Memorial School in Worcester.
The other bargaining unit affected by the contract — the U-32 Staff Association — is scheduled to consider the contract on Tuesday.
The chances of U-32 teachers refusing to ratify the contract or the Berlin board balking on April 24 are considered remote given what has been characterized as a productive interest-based bargaining process that required no outside assistance. The agreement is scheduled to go into effect on July 1 under Act 46.
At least for the moment, that’s the same date the five-town, six-school supervisory union is set to be supplanted by the Washington Central Unified Union School District under one of several state-ordered mergers.
The launch of the new district, run by one board responsible for the pre-K-12 education of all students in Washington Central, may yet be delayed, but even if it isn’t, terms of the newly ratified contract will remain in force during its first full year of operation.
The contract will be the last that includes health insurance benefits for teachers employed at Washington Central’s six schools thanks to a lesser known law.
Among other things, Act 11, which was passed last year, set the stage for a 10-member commission to negotiate a statewide health insurance benefit for teachers. That process is underway and will conclude by mid-December if arbitration is required.
Due to the looming shift in health insurance, the duration of all newly negotiated teacher contracts in Vermont could not exceed one year. The Washington Central contract meets that requirement and will expire on June 30, 2020.
Given the contract’s limited duration, school and union negotiators in Washington Central agreed early on to focus solely on wages and benefits. Discussion of other possible changes to the labor agreement were tabled until the next round of contract talks.
Negotiations with the supervisory union’s educational support personnel are just getting underway. Like teachers, those staff members are working under a contract that expires June 30 and will be replaced with a one-year agreement.