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Nadworny: Contract Bridge

Teacher negotiations over a one-year contract in Burlington recently have been contentious – leaving open the possibility of a strike in October that would throw lives and school plans into complete chaos.

The challenge arose when, in the last teacher contract, the Burlington School Board agreed to put in language stating that it would pay teacher salaries considered average for Chittenden County. So Burlington teachers wouldn’t receive the highest teacher salaries, like those in Shelburne or South Burlington, but they wouldn’t receive the lowest either, like in Winooski or Milton. The board made that concession as it negotiated a lower salary increase than the teachers wanted. And at the time, it seemed like an inherently fair agreement.

But the School Board said it’s a mistake to compare Burlington teachers’ salaries to other Chittenden County teachers. Instead, they wanted to compare them with other Burlington professionals who earn, on average, the same as teachers. They question why teachers should receive a salary raise when – say - dental hygienists don’t? And while that comparison may seem pretty random, the board is apparently sticking with it.

The board argued originally that we couldn’t afford to increase teachers’ salaries by more than 2% - despite the fact that they increased the new superintendent’s salary by $20K, while paying an additional $30K for a failed visa application - plus potential salary bonuses for performance. And clearly they’re not comparing this salary with those of other city leaders, like the chief of police, who earns about $40K less than the superintendent.

A recent fact-finder suggested dropping the board’s employment comparison and effectively splitting the difference between the union and board’s numbers. But the school board has now chosen to stop negotiating and “impose” a contract on the teachers, which the teachers in turn have rejected.

But however this dispute plays out, the Burlington School district needs highly effective, competent and ever-improving teachers paid well for doing a great job. So it seems to me that rather than engaging in zero-sum games between school board and unions, there ought to be some way to improve teacher competency - and to reward them well for it.

Because the alternative - families and teachers leaving the school district in frustration - is just too painful for me to imagine.