BELLOWS FALLS -- All school boards of the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union voted to authorize their respective chairs to sign the local teachers' collective bargaining agreement on Thursday, putting to rest an emotional debate that has sharply divided the educational community for a year and a half.
Each board convened at Bellows Falls Union High School for a joint meeting for an opportunity to discuss any concerns over the tentative contract reached in April or the handwritten statement recently agreed upon by both parties.
The boards include the Bellows Falls Union High School Board No. 27, the WNESU Board No. 47 and the Rockingham, Westminster and Athens-Grafton boards of school directors.
By signing the agreement both sides agreed the teachers' union -- the Windham Northeast Education Association -- will give the supervisory union until Nov. 23 to rejigger its computers in order to calculate appropriate pay raises as quickly as possible before filing an unfair labor practice charge with the Vermont Labor Relations Board.
Stephen L. Fine, the chairman of the WNESU boards' negotiating committee, told the Reformer he wanted to avoid a situation that occurred in Bennington last fall, when educators filed a charge because they were not happy with the time it was taking for their paychecks to include agreed-upon wage increases.
After a few questions were asked, each board approved of the collective bargaining
"It's sort of nice to have it over," Fine told reporters after the joint meeting had adjourned. He mentioned the salary schedule was mistakenly omitted from the official agreement but the teachers nevertheless signed it.
He said the teachers will all receive raises of two and a half percent in the 2012-13 school year.
The tentative agreement had to be signed by Monday, Aug. 6, in order for the first paychecks to include the raises, but the educators then requested some revisions to the deal.
According to an e-mail Vermont National Education Association field representative Norman Bartlett sent to School Superintendent Chris Kibbe in June, desired adjustments included changes to general overall wording in addition to language pertaining to professional development and time allotted for filing grievances.
Fine said he and the other committee members refused to concur with any of the suggestions, all of which were then withdrawn by the teachers' union.
The principle change requested, Fine told the Reformer, was language that says a new probation period must restart and last for two years for any teacher that moves to a different district.
Fine explained the situation to the boards.
"The original contract had language in it and it was interpreted by the administration as meaning that if you move from one district to another, your probation period starts all over again in a new district," he said. "So even if you were 25 years in one district but you moved to another one, you would be on probation for those first two years."
Fine, an attorney by trade, previously said the educators initially agreed to that exact language during regular negotiations.
"We had wanted to make that a lot clearer than the language in the prior agreement made it and the union agreed to that," he told everyone. "In fact, they agreed to that right in front of the fact-finder, who put it in her report -- that this was the language that both the union and the boards have agreed to."
Fine said that was presented to the union at the beginning of May and the union sought the language changes about two and a half months later before ultimately withdrawing its request.
The irony of the whole matter is that the contract just settled expires on June 30, 2013, and the discussions on a new one -- which will go into effect on July 1 -- will begin in October.
Bartlett, the lead negotiator for the teachers' union, said he is glad the dilemma has been solved.
"I kind of describe it as like taking a deep breath," he said in a telephone interview, in reference to having to start another round of discussions in October. "But it's always good to get them done. ... I'm very pleased."
Domenic Poli can be reached at email@example.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.