BELLOWS FALLS — The union representing the teachers in the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union have filed an unfair labor complaint against the local school boards, claiming the school boards’ insistence on negotiating in public is an unfair labor tactic.
In the complaint filed with the Vermont Labor Relations Board earlier this month, the Windham Northeast Education Association and its affiliate, Vermont NEA, said the school board “failed to bargain in good faith” by insisting on open session negotiations. The union claimed that open negotiations disrupted the traditional negotiating process.
The Vermont Supreme Court ruled in 2018 in a similar case involving the Caledonia Central Supervisory Union and its support staff union. The high court ruled that negotiations were not under the Vermont Open Meeting Law and thus could be held in public.
The Windham Northeast school boards have countered in their response saying that negotiations held in “private, clandestine, covert, concealed and closed to the public” were not in the public interest, and ran counter to the Vermont traditions of open government and transparency.
The unfair labor practice is lodged against the WNESU, the Bellows Falls Union High School Board, the Rockingham School Board and the Windham Northeast Unified Elementary School Board, which includes the towns of Westminster, Grafton and Athens.
The contract between the teachers and the school boards expired on June 30, and the teachers have been working since then without a contract. The teachers’ union had proposed that the two sides go to federal mediation to try and resolve the open negotiation issue, and the school boards have refused, saying such a move would short-circuit the entire negotiation process before it had even begun.
According to the complaint, the two sides met in January to set the ground rules for the upcoming negotiations, but there was no mention of how the negotiations would be conducted. That issue came up later.
David Clark, chairman of the WNESU and a Bellows Falls Union High School board member, said Sunday the boards wanted to negotiate in public “because we’ve become aware it’s available to us.” He referred all other comment to Stephen Fine of Athens, the boards’ lead negotiator.
Fine, a member of the BFUHS board as well, said since the option was now available to school boards across the state after the 2018 Vermont Supreme Court decision, they wanted to take it.
“We feel in light of Vermont’s strong public policy in favor of transparency and openness in all government actions and processes, and the right of the public to be directly informed of matters of public importance and concern, and especially matters involving the public purse as teacher negotiations clearly do — all of these considerations dictated that negotiation sessions should be open and public,” said Fine, quoting from the boards’ response.
“We felt it was important to have an open session, under the ‘Open Sunshine laws,’” Fine said.
Fine said the teachers’ union move to go immediately to mediation would have eliminated any chance of local negotiations by the elected school board members.
Dena Weiss-Tisman, a Westminster teacher who is the chairperson of the leadership team for the Windham Northeast Education Association, couldn’t be reached for comment Sunday.
“The parties’ negotiations sessions are not subject to Vermont’s Open Meeting Law. There is no requirement that negotiation sessions be warned and open to the public,” the formal complaint stated.
The teachers’ complaint noted that state law required school boards “shall negotiate in good faith on all matters properly before them.”
“There is no requirement nor authority provided by the statute for either party to demand a third person or party to be present at the negotiations without the agreement of the other party,” the unfair labor complaint stated.
In the boards’ answer to the unfair labor complaint filed last week, Fine, who is a semi-retired lawyer, said the school boards were not aware of the Vermont Supreme Court’s so-called Caledonia/Cabot decision.
The state’s high court ruled in 2018 that negotiating sessions did not come under Vermont’s Open Meeting Law, and thus could be held in open.
Fine argued that the teachers’ union had an obligation to raise the issue of the Caledonia/Cabot decision and how it affected negotiations but did not.
Contact Susan Smallheer at firstname.lastname@example.org.