As lawmakers and union leaders prepare for a showdown next month over teachers’ health care costs, local school board members and union reps are presently in negotiations — and the talks may illustrate the need for a statewide contract.
“The teachers are asking for 100 percent,” Patrick Healy, chair of the Twinfield Union School Board, told True North. “They do not want to pay anything out of pocket for insurance — that’s where their starting line is. We’re asking for 80/20 (split cost for premiums), and we’re setting up an HRA (Health Reimbursement Accounts, to help pay deductibles).”
Healy shares the negotiation table with his counterpart, Chris Tormey, chair of the Cabot School Board. Twinfield and Cabot, two pre-K-12 school districts, comprise the Washington Northeast Supervisory Union, headquartered in Plainfield.
Opposing the school board negotiators are local representatives for the Vermont-National Education Association.
“We are hoping to make some progress, but you never know,” Tormey said.
Tormey says he’s undecided on whether he supports Gov. Phil Scott or the NEA when it comes to a statewide contract for teacher health care plans.
The governor’s proposal, backed by the Vermont School Boards Association, the Superintendents Association and largely Republican lawmakers, is to have teacher health care negotiated at the statewide level — essentially one deal for all teachers. Scott wants to achieve $26 million in savings from the new arrangement.
The Vermont-NEA proposal, largely backed by Democrat and Progressive lawmakers, is to leave negotiations as they are now, on a case-by-case basis, for each supervisory union. That approach produces a patchwork of different deals for teachers and taxpayers.
In the final days of the legislative session, Democrats led by Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe came up with a plan that guaranteed $26 million in annualized savings, but left it to school boards to find the money. Scott rejected the proposal and let the session end with the threat of a budget veto in June.
Tormey said he did not like the Democrats’ proposal.
“It basically says you can do whatever you want at the negotiations table, and by the way you are going to have to guarantee X-dollar savings. I would say every school board chair in the state would have an issue with that,” he said.
Tormey, an NEA member, added that he does not think the NEA is too powerful, or that health care is too complicated for volunteer school boards to negotiate.
“They do their homework. They have lawyers and consultants that help the unions, and I think that school boards also budget money every year for assistance in negotiations. And we are getting some assistance with attorneys who are very familiar with this. So, I don’t think that we are undeserved,” he said.
Local NEA representative Terri Vest, chief negotiator for the WNSU Association Council, told True North that she stands for keeping negotiations local.
“I sit across the table from people who I’ve had their children in class or will have their children my class, and that’s important,” she said. “I feel like that personal piece is really important when we are talking about things.”
The Vermont-NEA, along with majority Democrats, argues that local negotiations can produce the estimated annual savings.
“I’m very concerned about the state getting involved in the insurance piece,” Vest said.
“There will be savings on the insurance at least initially, and I would like to see those savings stay with the local school boards at the local level.”
She questions the government’s record on giving money back.
“Every year (the state) has been changing the formula for how they send money back to the schools via the state property tax, and this year there was a lot of problems with school budgets because the state information didn’t come out in a timely fashion. Cabot was one of those (having problems).”
Healy said he doesn’t understand why more Democrats aren’t siding with the governor.
“I think health care is a right and not a benefit, and if we all had the same rights to it, it would make negotiations a lot easier,” he said. “We waste a lot of time on talking percentages (but) don’t get to what negotiations really should do: work on evaluations and workplace items, atmosphere, work hours, length of the school year. … We are more concerned about one or two percentages with health care.”
Negotiations for Washington Northeast Supervisory Union resume on June 1, and meetings are not open to the public. The Vermont Labor Relations Board has determined that the board should do negotiations in private. An appeal is being filed with the Vermont Supreme Court in an effort to make them public.
“As it stands now, I think (the press) could effectively file a complaint stating that (these meetings) are out of legal bounds here, that they should be an open meeting,” Tormey said.
Tormey, a high school science teacher, doesn’t consider being an NEA member a conflict of interest in how he negotiates. He said this is how he’s been doing it for many years.
“If anything, I have an understanding somewhat of the teachers’ concerns,” he said.
Healy said he’s aware of Tormey’s situation as NEA member and school board negotiator.
“It’s a concern but it hasn’t raised its head yet. Let’s just say I’m watching it closely,” Healy said. “On one hand it helps understand what other schools are doing. I think there’s enough check and balance with us that we’re OK.”